Nearly a dozen criminal cases have remained in limbo for the last three months since the FBI revealed it was investigating the agent in charge of an undercover child sex task force.
Now a specially appointed judge is demanding to know why he hasn't heard from prosecutors on how to proceed with the Catoosa County, Ga., cases, nicknamed "Craigslist" cases.
"Failing to hear from you I will simply issue an order and proceed," wrote Judge Grant Brantley to Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin.
Brantley did. He has set motions to be heard Aug. 12.
The motions are to decide whether defense attorneys in 10 cases should get to look through the FBI's Northwest Georgia Crimes Against Children Task Force members' computers and those members' personnel files.
The motions were filed by several attorneys, including David Dunn, McCracken Poston and Shawn Bible, on March 5 after reports revealed the FBI was investigating the task force leader, Special Agent Ken Hillman, for allowing a woman he was romantically involved with to work on the force and allowing her to arrest suspects.
A former task force member admitted that Hillman confessed he had allowed businessman Emerson Russell's estranged wife, Angela, to help out on the task force and, as a civilian, to handcuff suspects.
Defense attorneys have questioned whether prosecutors or members of the task force intentionally withheld information about Hillman that could hurt the police cases. So the five attorneys also asked the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office to recuse itself from prosecuting the cases, which it has not done.
In April, Brantley asked Franklin in an email how the state proposed to proceed, but Franklin never responded, the judge said. Brantley wrote him again in June after a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter called asking about the cases.
Franklin replied on Thursday that the defense attorneys wanted to put the motions on hold until the FBI investigation is complete.
But Brantley said he needs more proof that the FBI is looking into Hillman before delaying the cases even longer.
"I need something significantly more than 'it appears' the FBI is investigating matters that may impact the cases," he wrote to Franklin and the defense attorneys. "If you have it, get it to me forthwith."
Poston said the defense attorneys haven't been able to get more information about the FBI investigation, but without that information the prosecutors could win the cases and then run the risk of the verdicts being overturned.
"It suits everyone to wait until everything is done and known before you proceed," Poston said.
So far the FBI has admitted there is an investigation of Hillman, but officials declined to give an update on the status of that probe.
Franklin didn't return calls for questions about why he hasn't responded to the judge about the cases. In previous interviews, Franklin said he didn't believe the allegations against Hillman would affect the criminal cases and that he had no plans to step down from prosecuting the cases.
Since the cases have been halted, two defendants haven't been able to get a bond hearing to see if they can be released from jail, said Dunn, who represents both of them.
Dunn said he's asked for a bond hearing, but the local judges in the circuit can't grant his request because they've recused themselves from hearing any motions on the Craigslist cases.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at 423-757-6659 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...