A Cobb County, Ga., judge will decide if prosecutors or law enforcement agencies involved with an FBI task force are withholding evidence in 10 criminal sex cases, which attorneys claim could lead to those cases being dismissed.
All four Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit judges recused themselves Wednesday from hearing any motions in several cases involving men arrested in Northwest Georgia Crimes Against Children Task Force undercover stings. The cases in question were set to go to trial next week.
Five defense attorneys filed pretrial motions a week ago asking to examine the computers FBI agents used and demanding more evidence about how the task force operates. The attorneys maintain that evidence could damage the prosecution. And if there is proof that due process was violated, the cases should be dismissed, they said.
The defense attorneys, including David Dunn, McCracken Poston and Shawn Bible, also asked that the Lookout Mountain District Attorney's office recuse itself from prosecuting any of the FBI cases because it works closely with members of the task force and one of the prosecutors is married to a former task force member.
The task force has come under fire since its leader, FBI Special Agent Ken Hillman, was alleged to have used his position for special treatment and to have allowed a woman he was spotted drinking with late at night work on the task force without police training or certification.
Angela Russell, who admitted in a police investigation that she worked on the task force, doesn't appear on any task force arrest indictments, and the FBI hasn't confirmed or denied that she was working for that agency. Yet defense attorneys say their clients saw Russell, the estranged wife of millionaire businessman Emerson Russell, at the scene of undercover stings, and that in some cases she was allowed to handcuff surprised suspects.
Since the judges in the circuit won't hear the motions, Seventh District Administrative Judge James Bodiford will decide who will hear them. He has asked Senior Superior Court Judge Grant Brantley to do so, and an order to that effect will be issued by next week, court administrator Jody Overcash said.
While the judges recused themselves, prosecutors don't see a need to withdraw from the cases.
After the motions were filed on March 4, Assistant District Attorney Chris Arnt announced in court that he had withdrawn any plea deals for cases involving the FBI task force and was ready to go to trial.
District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said he sees no need for his office to step away from prosecuting the criminal cases. Franklin has said he doesn't believe any of the allegations against the FBI will hurt those cases.
But Dunn said the defense attorneys hope the outside judge will order the district attorney's office to recuse itself.
Dunn, who has two clients arrested by the task force sitting in jail, also fears the hearings could be drawn out.
"Everybody is in limbo right now," he said Thursday. "There's nothing else we can do [but wait.]"
While Judges Jon Wood, Kristina Graham, Ralph Van Pelt and Brian House won't hear the motions, they haven't recused themselves entirely from hearing the task force cases, which the court administrator said was unusual.
That means that, depending on what Brantley decides, the judges could hear the criminal cases at trial.
None of the four judges would comment for this story.
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 ...