Dozens of cases went unprosecuted under a Murray County, Ga., Magistrate Court judge who resigned under fire.
When L. Gale Buckner took over as judge a month ago, she found that she had to dismiss dozens of cases because they were too old. Other people had to be called back to court -- in some cases more than six months after their first appearance.
Former Judge Bryant Cochran, who is being investigated over allegations that he solicited a woman for sex in his chambers and presigned warrants, didn't follow through on more than 100 cases and left paperwork for them stacked in a box in his office, Buckner said.
When Buckner, the former state Juvenile Justice commissioner, was sworn into office Nov. 1, one of her first duties was to sort through the cases. She, along with other county officials, discovered that about 20 cases -- all misdemeanors or city ordinance citations -- had to be dismissed because the statue of limitations had expired.
She also found about 35 cases that will have to be retried, and her staff has begun calling those people back to court. In those cases, defendants may have been called to court initially but their cases were never resolved.
Two of the neglected cases were heard last week.
Devon Ball, who thought his case had been dismissed, was recalled on a shoplifting charge from May. John Patterson, who had been charged in March with disorderly conduct and being a pedestrian under the influence, was also back in court.
"Some of you may be wondering why you were called back to court when you thought your case was dissolved," Buckner announced in court. "In order to give you and the taxpayers a fair and just resolution," these cases had to be heard again.
Cochran couldn't be reached for comment. He resigned in August in the midst of a state ethics investigation and agreed never to be a judge again.
In the same week, his accuser, Angie Garmley, was arrested on drug charges. Prosecutors later dropped those charges and now Cochran and the two fired Murray County sheriff's deputies who arrested Garmley are under federal investigation.
While officials can't figure out why the stacks of ordinance violations, animal control tickets, civil and criminal cases were still in Cochran's former office, there didn't appear to be any signs of fraudulent activity, Buckner said.
"If so they would have been turned over to the GBI or FBI," she said. "It was either neglect or inattention to detail or something else."
County Attorney Greg Kinnamon said officials were eager to find out what the cases were and make sure no one would be tried a second time for the same charge, which is unconstitutional.
Kinnamon said he was asked to investigate the cases that needed to be dismissed, which were mainly old rabies vaccination tickets and city ordinance citations from 2011.
Because other county departments kept good records, the county was able to track down most of the cases, he said.
In court, Buckner also stressed something else to defendants recalled months after they thought their cases had been dismissed.
If they ever find themselves in a similar situation, they won't have to wait months to hear from the court, she said.
"This court is going to be fair with anyone that has business in this court," she said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...