published Saturday, July 26th, 2014

Johnson, convicted of ’99 Valentine’s Day slayings, seeks recusal of DA office, claims conflict of interest

Maurice Johnson, convicted in the 1999 Valentine's Day triple slaying in Cleveland, Tenn., attends a post-conviction relief hearing on Friday. Special Judge Don Ash is expected to make a ruling in two to three weeks regarding a request by Johnson's attorney to recuse the staff of the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office from future proceedings due to allegations of conflicts of interest and an appearance of impropriety.
Maurice Johnson, convicted in the 1999 Valentine's Day triple slaying in Cleveland, Tenn., attends a post-conviction relief hearing on Friday. Special Judge Don Ash is expected to make a ruling in two to three weeks regarding a request by Johnson's attorney to recuse the staff of the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office from future proceedings due to allegations of conflicts of interest and an appearance of impropriety.
Photo by Paul Leach /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Maurice Johnson, the only person convicted in the 1999 Valentine's Day triple slaying in Cleveland, is asking to recuse the entire staff of the 10th District Attorney General's Office from his post-conviction relief proceedings.

On Friday, Special Judge Don Ash heard arguments on whether the district attorney's office was tainted by conflicts of interests and appearances of impropriety. Ash announced he would make a ruling in two to three weeks.

"There's a man sitting in jail, so that's a priority with me," said Ash in regard to moving forward with Johnson's case.

While preparing the ground on which the recusal request would rest, Robert Kurtz, Johnson's attorney, described a tangle of cases that were related to the 1999 slayings of Orienthal "O.J." Blair, Cayci Higgins and Dawn Rogers. The three were discovered shot, execution-style, in a Cleveland apartment the day after a fight between Johnson and Blair.

"I've not been involved in a case with quite this procedural history before," said Kurtz.

Johnson was initially charged in the slaying with Michael "Money" Younger and Twanna "Tart" Blair. He was found guilty in August 2009 of three counts of first-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

At her October 2009 trial, Blair was found innocent of murder and other charges. Earlier this year, a 10th District proscutor reindicted Blair, but those charges were dismissed.

Younger's trial in May 2010 ended in a mistrial granted by Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy after prosecutor Paul Rush asked a question he was specifically told not to ask.

Charges against Younger were subsequently dropped by then-District Attorney Steve Bebb, who alleged that Reedy and the case detective, Duff Brumley, had had improper contact as evidenced by more than 200 phone calls while the case was pending.

A key question in Johnson's petition is whether justification for a mistrial in Younger's case also would apply to Johnson.

Kurtz cited a conflict of interest noted in email communications between veteran prosecutor Richard Fisher and Susan Shipley, Younger's attorney, that alleged that some members of the district attorney's office did not believe Younger should be prosecuted.

He said that another concern is Brumley, who was investigated after Bebb alleged he broke the law by checking a state database over concerns that the head of the district's drug task force might be abusing drugs. Brumley was never charged but subsequently was fired from the Cleveland Police Department.

"There [are] also a host of other issues involved within this district attorney's office that have raised concerns," Kurtz said. "The court has to consider both whether there is an actual conflict of interest and whether there is an appearance of impropriety."

Rush, representing the district attorney's office, argued that the motion for recusal has no basis in Johnson's case.

At no point during Johnson's trial and conviction were any allegations of problems or misconduct noted by any judge or any board, he said.

"What happened in Michael Younger's case and what happened in Twanna Blair's case is separate and distinct from what happened in Mr. Johnson's case," Rush said. "We did three separate proceedings on all three defendants."

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Contact him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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