Prosecutor removed from Valentine's Day slayings retrial in Bradley County

Prosecutor removed from Valentine's Day slayings retrial in Bradley County

June 11th, 2014 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

Prosecutor Richard Fisher listens to defense attorney Lee Davis speak to Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood in Bradley County Criminal Court on May 15, 2014.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Michael Younger

CLEVELAND, Tenn. - A special judge ruled Tuesday that veteran prosecutor Richard Fisher must be recused from the case against accused Valentine's Day slaying defendant Michael Younger.

Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted a motion by Younger's attorney, Susan Shipley, of Knoxville, saying that Fisher had a conflict of interest and shouldn't be allowed to stay on the case.

"It is our goal in every case ... to ensure fairness and impartiality of the proceedings," Blackwood said during a morning hearing in Bradley County Criminal Court. He was appointed to the case after Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy recused herself.

"That requires a prosecution that is conflict-free from both the prosecution standpoint and the defense standpoint," Blackwood said. "This case needs fresh eyes to avoid any appearance of impropriety."

Shipley had argued that Fisher should be recused because his appearance was tainted. Fisher reindicted Younger in March on murder charges in the 1999 case. Younger and co-defendants Maurice Johnson and Twanna "Tart" Blair were accused of the execution-style slayings of Orienthal "O.J." Blair, Cayci Higgins and Donna Rogers in a Cleveland apartment.

Fisher obtained the new indictment and shortly thereafter resigned from his position as an unpaid, part-time assistant district attorney. Soon after the indictment was handed down, 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb recused his office from the case, saying he had a conflict of interest because he was feuding with the judge and a former detective in the case. Bebb then asked that Fisher be named prosecutor pro tem to handle Younger's trial.

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Shipley objected that Bebb's conflict had existed before the indictment and extended to others in the office. She said Fisher had a personal conflict as well, because he and other assistant district attorneys involved in the case had been accused of prosecutorial misconduct. She said Reedy ordered all the prosecutors to report themselves to the Board of Professional Responsibility, the disciplinary agency for attorneys.

Fisher "has a personal interest in vindicating his personal and professional misconduct" in the case, Shipley argued.

One assistant, Paul Rush, subsequently was publicly censured by the board for misconduct. Fisher apparently never reported himself.

Fisher denied a conflict and argued that Shipley had cited no legal authority or case law justifying his removal from the case.

However, Blackwood disagreed. He has served as special judge since Younger's first murder trial in the slayings ended in a mistrial in 2009.

He ruled that Bebb knew there was a conflict that dated back to the mistrial and he noted how Reedy had raised questions about prosecutors' actions.

"If there's an actual conflict with Bebb, this court finds there's an actual conflict with all his assistants," Blackwood said.

"Furthermore, procedurally ... I don't know what to say about [this case.] It's been a mess. There's no way to get around it," he said.

Blackwood appointed Steve Crump, the district attorney-elect, to handle the case. Though it hasn't been officially announced, Crump is expected to take over the office July 1, since Bebb is resigning two months before his term ends on Aug. 31.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.