Judge denies Bradley County woman's motion for new trial, acquittal in second-degree murder conviction

In this 2017 staff file photo, Judge Don Ash listens to an attorney in the courtroom at the Cleveland Municipal Building in Cleveland, Tenn. / Staff file photo
In this 2017 staff file photo, Judge Don Ash listens to an attorney in the courtroom at the Cleveland Municipal Building in Cleveland, Tenn. / Staff file photo

The senior judge presiding over a July hearing on a Bradley County, Tennessee, second-degree murder defendant's motion for acquittal and a new trial denied the motion, according to court documents.

Senior Judge Don Ash ruled Oct. 7 against Miranda Cheatham's 2018 motion for acquittal in her second-degree murder conviction, meaning she will remain in prison on her 18-year sentence in the 2016 slaying of her husband, James Cheatham.

In July, Cheatham challenged her 2018 conviction, making allegations that 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen D. Crump had a conflict of interest in the case that included withholding an audio recording referring to an alleged sexual affair he had with the victim's half-sister and legal title work he did for her in private practice.

Crump has denied the allegations of an affair or that he was being blackmailed into securing a second-degree murder conviction.

Ash's ruling "returned the focus on this case to its rightful place, the murder of James Cheatham by Miranda Cheatham," Crump said in an emailed statement on Ash's ruling.

In a 40-page ruling filed last Thursday, Ash states evidence at trial was sufficient for the jury's conviction of second-degree murder and denied motions related to DNA evidence, evidence presented to the grand jury, an alleged "Brady Law" violation regarding blood evidence and officer testimony challenged by Cheatham's attorney.

photo Staff file photo / Tenth Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump talks about his duties in the boardroom in front of a mural of the former Merchants Bank and adjoining hotel from the turn of the century.

A contention in Cheatham's motion that the court erred in not declaring a mistrial related to an alleged affair and another motion related to an audiotape of a related conversation - addressed at length in the July hearing before Ash regarding assertions the district attorney was being blackmailed to get Cheatham's conviction - also was denied.

In his conclusion, Ash denied Cheatham's motion for acquittal, noting evidence was sufficient for a conviction of second-degree murder. He denied her motion for a new trial, noting the defense "has failed to prove any newly discovered evidence affected [Cheatham's] opportunity for a fair trial," the ruling states. Regarding the tape recording, Ash ruled there was no violation of evidence rules "because the recording was not 'material' to preparing Mrs. Cheatham's defense."

Cheatham's attorney, Chattanooga lawyer Bill Speek, was out of the office Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

Cheatham, originally charged in the killing in June 2017, has been serving her sentence at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Lauderdale County since Jan. 23, 2019, according to Tennessee Department of Correction records. Her sentence ends Nov. 6, 2035.

In late 2020, Crump's office was removed from Cheatham's bid to overturn her conviction. Special Senior Judge Ash was the third judge appointed to the case after two other judges recused themselves, citing personal conflicts.

After last week's ruling, Crump said he was grateful for the efforts of assistant district attorneys John Zimmerman and Allyson Abbott, of the 16th Judicial District, who handled the case in place of the 10th Judicial District office. He also praised his own assistant district attorneys, Coty Wamp and Drew Robinson, and Cleveland Police Department Detective Daniel Gibbs for their work in the original trial.

"The whole purpose of my recusing the office was to allow for a complete independent review of this matter so as to remove any cloud of doubt on the jury verdict and to provide independent confirmation that I and this office followed the law," Crump said in his statement. Thursday's ruling "does both completely. The ruling is vindication for me. But it is also vindication for the Cleveland Police Department, this office, and most importantly, for the family of James Cheatham."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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