The Chattanoota Times Free Press and the city of Chattanooga have said they will not appeal a chancellor’s order to return a tape of graphic fantasies to former Circuit Judge John Hagler.
Hamilton County Chancellor Frank Brown ruled Jan. 17 that the recording did not relate to Mr. Hagler’s former duties in the 10th Judicial District and that its possession by the Chattanooga Police Department did not make it a public record. He also ruled the tape could not be kept as police evidence.
“We believe the tape falls within the scope of the Tennessee open records law. The Times Free Press chose not to appeal the adverse decision because it will have minimal impact on future cases,” said Tom Griscom, publisher and executive editor of the Times Free Press.
The newspaper is requesting, however, that Mr. Hagler keep a copy of the tape if future litigation is filed. Mr. Hagler purchased an advertisement in the Cleveland Daily Banner on Jan. 11 in which he said he wanted the Times Free Press to retract some of its reporting and he hinted he may sue for libel and slander.
Anthony “Bud” Jackson, an attorney for the Times Free Press, wrote in a letter Monday to Mr. Hagler’s attorney that “such litigation would be groundless” but that the newspaper “will consider any destruction of the recording to be spoliation of evidence.”
Mr. Hagler and his attorney, Roger Jenne, of Cleveland, Tenn., did not return requests for comments Monday.
Chattanooga city officials on Dec. 18 were set to release the tape to the Times Free Press, but Mr. Hagler obtained a court order that paved the way for the open records case and Chancellor Brown’s ruling.
Chattanooga Attorney Randy Nelson said Monday that the city will not pursue the case any further.
“It costs time and money to (appeal) it,” Mr. Nelson said. “The issue isn’t really broad enough that it will have any impact on future precedence and so forth. It seemed to us that it wasn’t a case that was primed for appeal.”
The Chattanooga Police Department had kept copies of the tape since receiving the recording in 2005 from Nona Rogers, who worked as a secretary for Mr. Hagler.
Mrs. Rogers said she discovered the graphic material on a tape of legal dictation given to her by Mr. Hagler. She testified during the open records trial that the graphic content caused her to think of the 1997 slaying of Episcopal priest Charles Martin “Marty” Davis of Chattanooga.
Chattanooga police officials testified that they were keeping the tape as exculpatory evidence in the unsolved slaying, although the link between the recording and the murder never were fully explained in trial.
A police officer did testify that Mr. Hagler described murder and torture on the tape.
Chancellor Brown wrote in his opinion that Mr. Hagler’s tape is not related to the priest’s murder, however.
Mr. Nelson said losing the tape as evidence “could complicate matters” if an arrest is made in the cold-case murder, but he said the city is “comfortable with the manner in which we are proceeding.”
Mr. Hagler resigned Dec. 31 after serving 17 years in the 10th Judicial District of Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. He was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by state and local investigators, but he said information about the tape becoming public was embarrassing.