published Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Hamilton County public defender's filings detail bias accusations

Judge Barry Steelman speaks during a trial.
Judge Barry Steelman speaks during a trial.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Motion to Recuse
Motion to Recuse
Rescusal Motion Amended
Rescusal Motion Amended

The Hamilton County public defender is laying groundwork for possible appeals to a higher court if a local judge refuses to recuse himself from her office's cases.

In court documents filed this week, both Public Defender Ardena Garth and Assistant Public Defender Mary Ann Green wrote that Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman "has created an environment in this Court of hostility and disrespect" toward their office.

The public defenders claim the judge is biased against them for future cases based on a heated Aug. 14 hearing and a previously written opinion.

In court documents related to 51 cases in which they've asked Steelman to recuse himself, the defenders wrote that he lacks impartiality and used the hearing to "make a venomous attack" on the public defender's office.

Green and Garth appear to be laying groundwork for an appeal in their documents, which cite judicial ethics rules along with portions of the hearing transcript. The defenders noted that actual proof of bias isn't necessary to have a judge recused; merely the perception of bias is enough to call a judge's impartiality into question.

In the Aug. 14 hearing, convicted criminal Frederick Anderson claimed Steelman was biased against him and Green, his trial attorney.

The hearing reignited an ongoing dispute between the defender's office and Steelman.

Anderson was found guilty on nine counts following a September 2011 kidnapping and assault trial. In the recent hearing, he sought Steelman's recusal from his sentencing phase. Green asked to be recused from Anderson's case after the verdict last year, and her request was granted.

In the latest hearing, Anderson cited a seven-page opinion Steelman wrote in the unrelated case of Jesse Mathews, who awaits trial on charges that he shot and killed Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin during an April 2, 2012, botched robbery on Brainerd Road.

Steelman replaced Green and Executive Assistant District Public Defender Karla Gothard as Mathews' attorneys with private attorneys Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss for a May 2011 hearing. Gothard and Green had represented Mathews in Sessions Court but had not been appointed to the case in Criminal Court.

Steelman's opinion noted instances in which Gothard and Green had claimed trial errors in post-conviction hearings. The judge later said that type of conduct had to stop.

The judge's reasoning, in part, was that Gothard and Green had a "pattern" of undermining the courts by "falling on their sword post-conviction and claiming all manner of incompetence," Steelman said in the hearing transcript.

Green refuted that argument in her filings this week.

Steelman is scheduled to take up the recusals following Anderson's continued hearing on Aug. 27. If he declines to recuse himself, the public defender can appeal the decision.

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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