published Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Defense attorneys demand more information from FBI

What defense attorneys are asking for:

• To examine all computers task force members used to communicate with defendants

• To examine the personnel files of task force members, whether state or federal officers

• For the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney's office to disqualify itself from hearing the task force arrest criminal cases

• For prosecutors to disclose any more evidence about their cases whether it would hurt or help the prosecution

Source: Catoosa County Superior Court documents

Multiple defense attorneys say they were given false or incomplete information about the FBI sex crime task force that arrested their clients during undercover stings.

At least five local attorneys have filed motions in Catoosa County Superior Court that question whether prosecutors or law enforcement have turned over all evidence that could show whether the FBI Northwest Georgia Crimes Against Children task force was hiding how its operation worked.

That information might lead to cases against their clients being dismissed, the attorneys say.

The task force has come under fire since FBI Agent in Charge Ken Hillman is alleged to have used his position for special treatment and allowed a woman he was spotted with late at night work on the task force without police training or certification.

Angela Russell, who admitted in a police investigation that she works on the task force, doesn't appear on any of the task force arrest indictments. Defense attorneys also say Russell, the estranged wife of businessman Emerson Russell, isn't mentioned in any evidence that the district attorney's office has turned over to them.

The motions, filed by attorneys David Dunn, McCracken Poston, Shawn Bible and Steve Ellis, on Monday afternoon accuse the state, either prosecutors or law enforcement, of giving "false and incomplete" evidence to the defense attorneys.

The attorneys say that until all the evidence comes out in open court the criminal cases shouldn't go further. If there is proof that due process was violated, the cases should be dismissed, they said.

"We're extremely concerned about what we do know happened," said public defender David Dunn. "We don't feel like we know everything out there, and we want to get to the bottom of it."

District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said nothing the FBI is investigating relates to how the task force was operating to catch suspects. But he declined to comment on the specific allegations in the motions.

Franklin said his office plans to go forward with the cases, about 17, now on the trial docket.

"I don't see anything to cause this not to go forward," he said. "There's a lot of speculation in the motions."

The FBI confirms it is investigating Hillman but won't comment on the task force. Other members of the task force have declined to comment or return phone calls.

Task force members, who are local law enforcement personnel or FBI staff, troll the Internet looking for people who respond to ads, then convince them to meet for underage sex.

The FBI says the initiative cuts down on child predators online.

The 17 task force cases now in Catoosa County Superior Court primarily involve charges of computer pornography and attempted child molestation. Because defendants don't actually have sex, the molestation charge is "attempted," but it's still a felony. Indictments show the computer pornography charges stem from the suspects using the Internet to solicit who they think is an underage girl or boy.

Many of the defendants, who range from a 20-year-old from Signal Mountain to a former Marine from Lawrenceville, Ga., are first-time offenders. Their attorneys claim in many cases they are lured into communicating because they reply to an adult advertisement on sites such as Craigslist.

If law enforcement personnel don't identify themselves during communication that they are underage, the defendant could prove the charges should be dismissed, Poston said. That's why he said it's so important to know about all interaction between suspects and law enforcement.

Defense attorneys also are requesting the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit recuse itself from hearing any of the cases. Franklin did not answer a question about whether he is considering disqualifying his office, saying only: "There's nothing I'm aware of to not go forward."

A University of Tennessee law professor said the district attorney's office should recuse itself in this case to avoid a potential conflict of interest and to be fair and impartial.

Prosecutors are required to turn over any evidence they receive that could hurt their cases, said Penny White, of UT. Depending on how closely the district attorney's office worked with this task force, prosecutors may be called later to testify about what they knew. That presents a conflict of interest, she said.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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