published Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Public defender drops recusal motions against Judge Steelman

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A two-week standoff between the public defender and a local criminal court judge that halted 143 cases ended with a single sentence Tuesday.

"Comes Ardena J. Garth, District Public Defender for the 11th Judicial District, and gives notice she is striking all Motions for Recusal, including any amendments, effective immediately," Garth wrote in court documents.

Though the cases now may continue through the court system, beneath the surface unanswered questions float -- a sitting judge accused the public defender's office of poor management, undermining justice and sloppy lawyering.

The public defender wrote that the judge created a hostile work environment and destroyed perceptions of his impartiality, creating a bias against all of the office's clients in his courtroom.

Those accusations linger.

Both Garth and Judge Barry Steelman have declined to comment about the recent dispute. But court transcripts and filings over the past two weeks give details of what caused the rift.

In an Aug. 14 hearing, Frederick Anderson, a criminal defendant and former client of Assistant District Public Defender Mary Ann Green, alleged that Steelman was biased against him and Green during his September 2011 trial.

A jury found Anderson guilty on nine counts in a kidnapping, robbery and assault case. At the end of the trial, Green asked for and was removed from representing Anderson in the sentencing phase of his case.

In his Aug. 14 hearing, Anderson cited an opinion from Steelman in a May 6, 2011, hearing in which he assigned private attorneys Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss to represent murder defendant Jesse Mathews instead of Green and Executive Assistant District Public Defender Karla Gothard, who'd began working with Mathews as appointed attorneys in Sessions Court.

Mathews faces a death penalty trial in January 2013 on charges he shot and killed Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin on April 2, 2011.

In the Mathews opinion, Steelman cited a "pattern" of admitted errors by Green and Gothard, which he later said "undermined justice."

"That's got to stop. Courts have to stop looking the other way," he wrote.

But in filings last week, both Green and Garth countered that the opinion and written statements by the judge in the Aug. 14 hearing had "created an environment in this Court of hostility and disrespect" toward the defender's office.

The pair noted also that Steelman failed to include in his opinion that many of the past cases he cited in his "pattern" accusations took place when he was opposing counsel, prosecuting the very clients they defended.

"The court made a prior finding in that matter that 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," Steelman said in the hearing transcript.

The day after Anderson's recent hearing, Green and Garth began filing motions to recuse Steelman from all the public defender office's cases in his court, later citing a perception of bias against the office.

Under state court rules, when a recusal motion is filed, nothing further can happen with the case until the motion has been ruled upon.

Steelman set a hearing to discuss the recusal motion for Monday. At the start of the hearing, local private attorneys Hank Hill and Rich Heinsman, speaking on behalf of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, sought to intervene to try to reach a "common ground."

Through the association, 44 private attorneys began offering free legal representation to new indigent clients who normally would have been assigned to the public defender.

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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