Maurice Johnson's new judge ruled Friday that Johnson, the only person convicted in the 1999 Valentine's Day triple slaying in Cleveland, Tenn., also deserves new defense lawyers.
Special Judge Don Ash was named after Tennessee's Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last year that Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy should be recused because her "impartiality might reasonably be questioned."
Ash, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., said the Bradley County public defender's office has a conflict in the case and that he would appoint new counsel for Johnson before the next scheduled hearing June 17.
"Not that you'd not do a good job," Ash told Public Defender Richard Hughes and Assistant Public Defender Leon Shahan as they flanked Johnson in court Friday.
But, he said, Johnson has "one shot" at post-conviction relief, and "I don't want to take the risk" that Johnson might not get a fair hearing.
Hughes said afterward that he understood Ash's concern.
"In a matter as serious as this -- post-conviction relief on first-degree murder -- the judge is being cautious," he said.
There could be other motions heard at the June 17 hearing, though prosecutor Richard Fisher said the state and defense might reach agreement on some items by then.
"The state isn't going to do anything to delay Mr. Johnson getting a fair hearing," he said.
A jury found Johnson guilty in 2009 of three counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of O.J. Blair, Cayci Higgins and Dawn Rogers. The three were shot, execution-style, in a Cleveland apartment the night after a fight between Johnson and Blair.
Johnson is seeking post-conviction relief, claiming that he didn't get a fair trial because his private trial attorneys didn't do their jobs right. Ineffective assistance of counsel is a standard tactic by defendants seeking dismissals or new trials.
His arguments ranged from the attorneys' lack of a paid defense investigator and failure to raise the possibility that someone else shot the three to allegations of misconduct by prosecutors, a case detective and the judge.
The Bradley County Public Defender's office was representing him on that claim. But Ash ruled that the public defender's office had a conflict: It had represented a person who had been named, although never called, as a prosecution witness in the trial of Johnson's co-defendant, Michael Younger.
Ash ruled that the waiver allowing the public defender's office to represent Johnson was inadequate because there was no letter from the prior client and witness, Angelo Golston, or from the Board of Professional Responsibility disclaiming any conflict.
Another issue is that Hughes said he might be called as a witness. Hughes said Golston gave a statement to prosecutors and later District Attorney Steve Bebb allowed him to withdraw a guilty plea in another case.
Hughes said Friday he "did have some concerns about the actions Brumley and Bebb took on behalf of that witness."
Shahan said the deal was done "outside the scope" of the public defender's office, which represented Golston.
"We found out about it after the fact," he said.
Johnson initially was charged in the slayings with two others: Michael Younger and Twanna "Tart" Blair. Charges against Blair were dismissed.
Younger's trial came after Johnson was convicted, but Reedy granted a mistrial after a prosecutor asked a question he'd been specifically ordered not to ask. Later, Bebb dismissed charges against Younger, alleging that Reedy and Brumley had had improper contact as evidenced by more than 200 phone calls while the case was pending.
Johnson now is saying that his attorneys were ineffective, among other reasons, because that same alleged improper communication would have affected his case, as well.
That forces Bebb's office into the position that misconduct bad enough to justify dismissing murder charges against Younger is harmless in co-defendant Johnson's case.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-756-6416.