published Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Judge accused of bias called defense 'sloppy'

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Transcript from an Aug. 14 hearing in Judge Barry Steelman's court
Transcript from an Aug. 14 hearing in Judge Barry Steelman's court

Details in a recent transcript show a local Criminal Court judge is frustrated with what he perceives as "sloppy" legal work by some public defender's attorneys and he wants it to end.

The Aug. 14 hearing before Hamilton County Judge Barry Steelman led District Public Defender Ardena Garth to request that the judge recuse himself or reassign her office's cases out of concern that he is biased.

The hearing involved allegations by criminal defendant Frederick Anderson, who was found guilty on Sept. 23, 2011, by a jury on nine counts connected to an armed kidnapping and assault. Anderson claimed in last week's hearing that both Steelman and his public defender, Mary Ann Green, were biased against him.

Green sought to recuse herself from representing Anderson for the sentencing phase of his case after the verdict.

Leading up to the trial, a key out-of-state witness was not subpoened by Green, and Steelman attempted to locate the witness by phone shortly before the trial.

In the Aug. 14 hearing, according to transcripts, Steelman said he could have said, "Well, tough luck, Ms. Green, you waited until the night before the trial." But instead, to ensure a fair trial, Steelman "got involved in the matter to help see that what the attorney failed to do, the Court got it done," the transcripts show.

"So in some instances, Mr. Anderson, the Court, more so than your attorney, ensured that you got a fair trial," Steelman said in the transcript. "[Green] doesn't see the need to subpoena and secure the attendance of a witness from the state of New Mexico. That's sloppy. It's not the first time the Court has seen that kind of thing out of the public defender's office."

Anderson also referenced a seven-page opinion Steelman wrote related to the legal representation of Jesse Mathews, who is facing the death penalty after being charged with shooting and killing Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin on April 2, 2011, during a botched robbery.

In a May 2011 hearing, Steelman dismissed Green and Executive Assistant District Public Defender Karla Gothard from representing Mathews and appointed private attorneys Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss. In his opinion, Steelman cited an overburdened workload and questionable past performance by both public defenders.

Steelman referenced the opinion again when Anderson pointed to it in the Aug. 14 hearing.

"It is the pattern of certain public defenders -- and it's attributed to Ms. Garth as the public defender in this county because she allows these assistants to work for her -- to undermine the work of the Courts and the juries in this county by falling on their sword post-conviction and claiming all manner of incompetence. That's got to stop. Courts have to stop looking the other way," Steelman said in the transcript.

The next hearing on Anderson and Garth's recusal motions is Aug. 27.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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