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VOL. 130 | NO. 186 | Thursday, September 24, 2015

Criminal Appeals Court Cancels Memphis Teacher’s Retrial

By Bill Dries

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The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Tuesday, Sept. 22, that a local school teacher convicted of attempted first-degree murder in a 2012 beating of his wife will not get a new trial. Criminal Court Judge Carolyn Wade Blackett had ordered the new trial for Michael Halliburton in June, right after sentencing him to 20 years in prison.

A new attempted murder trial for defendant Michael Halliburton was denied this week in a ruling by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The unusual case is about whether a judge has to say for the record why a new trial is granted and the relationship between Blackett and the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office.

The appeals court vacated Blackett’s order granting Halliburton a new trial, concluding she was wrong for telling prosecutors after the sentencing that jurors had made numerous comments about their conduct during the trial. The court added that Blackett may have violated judicial ethics.

The ruling and opinion written by criminal appeals judges Roger A. Page and John Everett Williams concluded that if Blackett had problems with what happened between Halliburton’s conviction in May and his sentencing in June, she should have recused herself before sentencing him and hearing his appeal for a new trial.

Halliburton was convicted by a jury in May on charges of attempted first-degree murder, domestic assault and aggravated assault. After the verdict, Blackett met briefly with jurors before dismissing them.

A month later, immediately following a sentencing hearing for Halliburton, Blackett granted a motion for a new trial, in part “because there were numerous comments by the jury about the conduct of counsel during this entire trial …” according to a transcript released as part of Tuesday’s appellate court ruling.

When prosecutors Sam Winning and Karen Cook sought more specifics, according to the transcript, Blackett said, “There were comments that were made whenever I go back and talk to them. And I think that with that and in conjunction with the things that were stated on the motion for new trial, that we should have one.”

Halliburton requested the new trial on several grounds, including that the evidence in the case preponderated “against the guilt and in favor of the innocence of the defendant.”

“You don’t think there’s sufficient evidence?” Cook asked. “You accepted the verdict that day. The Court’s ruling through 10 days of trial were improper?”

Blackett denied that but questioned whether Cook and Winning were arguing with the court.

“I granted it and I don’t think I need to say anything more than that,” she added.

But Cook and Winning pushed for more of an explanation on the record, saying it was necessary for a record on which to base an appeal. Blackett said she would do that in writing.

Later in the same hearing she again said, “I don’t think that there is any requirement in law that I have to give you specific reasons for anything.”

That same day, Winning delivered a motion to Blackett seeking a written ruling for the record from her.

Blackett then told Winning her attorneys “may be talking to the Justice Department.”

“They are seriously thinking about calling the Department of Justice,” Blackett added.

In August, Blackett recused herself from the new trial without further explanation and the case went to Criminal Court Judge Bobby Carter.

In a concurring order, the third appellate court judge to consider the appeal was more specific than the two other judges on the appeals panel.

Judge Alan E. Glenn wrote that Blackett was required to let both sides know the nature of the ex parte communications with the jurors and give them a chance to respond. He added that her conduct can “reasonably” be presumed to violate the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

He also said her conduct “reasonably could have been viewed as evidencing a personal bias or prejudice against members of the state of the Shelby County District Attorney General.”

And Glenn said Blackett’s comments about a Justice Department investigation “create a unique problem” since they point to a possible recusal from every case heard in her court, all of which are prosecuted by the District Attorney General’s office.

“Thus a recusal from all cases brought by that office would be an impossibility,” Glenn wrote.

The appeals court has remanded the case to Carter, whose first order of business is to determine whether Blackett approved the jury’s verdict once it was delivered. Tennessee law requires that the trial judge act as a “thirteenth juror” following a unanimous verdict from the 12 jurors selected for the trial.

If Carter rules that Blackett did approve the verdict, he would then sentence Halliburton and hold a hearing on Halliburton’s appeal. If Carter rules that Blackett did not approve the verdict, he would consider whether he can act as the thirteenth juror and approve the verdict.

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