published Friday, August 17th, 2012

Public defender wants judge removed from office's cases

Judge Barry Steelman speaks during a trial.
Judge Barry Steelman speaks during a trial.
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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The Hamilton County public defender has asked a local Criminal Court judge to recuse himself or reassign her office's cases to another judge following a Tuesday hearing in which one of her lawyers said the judge was biased against her.

Public Defender Ardena Garth on Wednesday filed recusal motions for 11 cases scheduled in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom that day, the day after the hearing.

Transcripts of Tuesday's hearing are being prepared to determine exactly what was said, according to court records. The hearing was continued to Aug. 27 and the recusal/reassignment motions will be addressed that day, after the hearing.

Reached by phone Thursday, Garth declined to comment on cases involving her office's legal representation.

Steelman said in a phone message he declined to comment.

The conflict stems from a May 6, 2011, hearing involving Jesse Mathews, who is charged with first-degree murder in the April 2, 2011, shooting death of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin. He faces the possibility of the death penalty in a trial scheduled for Jan. 22, 2013.

In that hearing, Steelman dismissed Executive Assistant Public Defender Karla Gothard and Assistant Public Defender Mary Ann Green from representing Mathews and assigned private attorneys Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss.

In a seven-page opinion, Steelman cited the public defender's overburdened workload, limited resources, problems with staffing, Gothard's self-proclaimed health problems and past trial performance as his reasons for reassigning the case to private attorneys.

He detailed an alleged "pattern" of shortcomings, errors and ineffective assistance of counsel in at least three previous death penalty cases involving both Gothard and Green.

Following that hearing, Green represented Frederick Anderson in a kidnapping and assault trial where he was convicted on nine counts.

Green asked to withdraw as Anderson's representative for the sentencing, claiming that Steelman had shown bias against her in the Mathews case and in Anderson's trial.

In Tuesday's hearing, Anderson told Steelman he thought the judge was biased against him and Green during the trial. He also referenced Steelman's decision to replace Green in the Mathews hearing as a reason he believed the judge was biased against his attorney.

Anderson seized on jailhouse conversations with Mathews, who Anderson testified was housed in a cell next to him. Anderson since has obtained Donna Miller to represent him on post-conviction claim, which asks Steelman to recuse himself from Anderson's sentencing.

Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Casey Mahoney said Thursday that staff could not recall a recent situation in which a public defender's office sought blanket recusal of a judge on multiple cases.

She referred to Tennessee Supreme Court rules, which govern judicial conduct.

The rules state the judge may not take further action on the cases in which the motion was filed, the judge must reply in writing whether he will grant or deny the motion and the judge must explain the grounds for any denial.

If Garth's motions for recusal are denied by Steelman, she can appeal that decision and ask for a higher court's opinion, according to the rules.

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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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