Ex-judge guilty on all counts: Prosecutors painted picture of a magistrate run amok; man who once dispensed justice faces federal prison


Stuart James, one of Angela Garmley's attorneys, sent this statement by email after the end of the trial: "I spoke to our client today. She wanted me to tell the news media that she thinks meth is the devil. She struggles every day with her addiction. She is thankful that she had the opportunity to share her story in court, all of it. She is proud of the U.S. Attorney, the FBI, the GBI and the prosecutors for doing justice. She is even more proud of the jury for ensuring that justice was done and that the facts came out resulting in a conviction of Bryant Cochran on all six counts. The verdict proves that everyday people can stand up to those in authority and get justice in our court system."

ROME, Ga. - A former Murray County judge is guilty of six federal crimes.

Bryant Cochran, who was the county's magistrate from 2005-12, sat in U.S. District Court on Thursday afternoon as a bailiff read the verdicts: Guilty of sexually harassing a female employee, of illegally searching through another female employee's phone, of framing a woman for arrest and of asking a childhood friend to lie to investigators for him.

As the toll of "guiltys" grew, Cochran bowed his head, shaking it back and forth. Behind him, some family members sat still, concealing any emotion. Others cried.

Cochran's punishment remains to be seen. U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy allowed Cochran to leave Rome with his family on Thursday.

He will return for a sentencing hearing Feb. 20.

The six crimes Cochran committed while in office carry different sentences. They could all be served at the same time, or served one after another. Murphy will determine that.

The harshest potential punishment is for the charge of tampering with a witness. The crime carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.

During the six-day trial, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeffrey Davis and William McKinnon Jr. relied on circumstantial evidence to prove Cochran pulled the strings on the arrest of a woman who threatened his career. Davis and McKinnon told the jury that each piece of evidence, even things that seemed small, pointed to Cochran as the mastermind of the conspiracy.

photo Former Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran and Angela Garmley. Garmley's accusations against Cochran initiated a state investigation that led to the judge's resignation.

The jury deliberated for about four hours over two days before reaching a unanimous verdict.

"I think the jury recognized through Cochran's course of conduct that he was guilty as charged," Davis said. "I think they were able to make all the connections that we put forward."

A hostile workplace

Virginia Rector, Cochran's former clerk, told the jury that she feared working for the former magistrate. For years, she said, he sexually harassed her. But she didn't report the crime until after he resigned.

"He had a lot of friends in the county," she testified on Dec. 3. "I would get fired and nobody would know. It's not right. It's not fair."

Cochran's secretary, Sonya Petty, told the jury that Cochran sneaked around the office, looking through female employees' cellphones when they weren't around. One day, Petty said, she found him sitting in her chair, staring at her phone.

Prosecutors told the jury that this is a crime - a deprivation of Petty's rights. Cochran's attorney, Page Pate, disagreed with that interpretation of the law. He said a boss should be allowed to look at his employees' phones.

Pate also tried to discredit Rector's testimony by questioning her character. But Murphy would not let witnesses testify about Rector's sexual history because she was not on trial.

A conspiracy

Even before Rector or Petty accused Cochran of any crimes, his career began to unravel.

It was in April 2012 that Angela Garmley visited him in his office. She asked Cochran to take out warrants against three people she said had beaten her.

She testified that Cochran told her he needed a mistress and asked whether she liked oral sex. They talked and texted for about a week.

Months later, Garmley said, Cochran told her husband she had flirted with him. Joe Garmley reported the relationship to the Judicial Qualifications Commission and local media outlets in July 2012.

A month later, the Murray County Sheriff's Office arrested Garmley on charges of possessing methamphetamine. What led to the arrest? Two sides presented two stories.

Prosecutors told the jury that Cochran framed Garmley. Several law enforcement officers testified that Cochran gave them a tip: You will find drugs in Garmley's car. Then Cochran's tenant showed up unannounced at Garmley's trailer at 1:30 a.m.

Clifford "C.J." Joyce told Garmley he wanted to buy a guitar from her father, came inside, used the restroom, then hopped out a back window, next to where Garmley parked her car.

Two days later, Murray County Deputy Josh Greeson pulled Garmley over. He searched her car for drugs but couldn't find anything. Murray County Capt. Michael Henderson called Cochran, who told him to check under her car. Henderson passed the tip to Greeson, who found the meth.

A district attorney later dropped the charges against Garmley. Greeson and Henderson pleaded guilty to obstruction, and Joyce pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance for planting the drugs on Garmley's car.

None of them testified in Cochran's trial.

Though Cochran didn't testify, Pate provided a different version of events. Garmley is a known addict, Pate said, and after she accused Cochran of harassing her, several friends told Cochran that she drove around town with drugs. He just passed that information along to police.

The cover up

Weeks after Garmley's arrest, Henderson told the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that a childhood friend had told Cochran where Garmley kept her drugs. But the friend, Mike Winkler, said this wasn't true.

Winkler testified that he never knew where Garmley kept her drugs. He said Cochran asked him to lie to the GBI on his behalf, to take the heat off him.

But Pate pointed to Winkler as the liar. He said Winkler gave Cochran the tip, then lied about it when he found out the GBI was investigating the arrest. Winkler was scared he could get arrested, for some reason.

Pate asked Winkler about his phone records. They showed that Winkler talked to Cochran and Cochran's niece, Erika Sanford, several times in the weeks before Garmley's arrest. They talked for 20-30 minutes.

Winkler testified that he didn't remember those conversations.

Sanford said she remembers. After Thursday's verdict, she said Winkler told her where Garmley keeps her meth. She said she told Winkler to report this to Cochran.

But Sanford wasn't allowed to tell the jury about those conversations. Murphy said Sanford's testimony would be hearsay.

On Thursday afternoon, minutes after hearing that her uncle was guilty, Sanford began to cry. She was angry.

"They should have let me speak," she said, her voice breaking. "If they would have let me talk, none of this would have happened."

Cochran walked past her, his hands in his pockets. He stared at his shoes.

"It'll be all right," he said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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