Longtime 12th Judicial District Judge retires, recalls first DNA case in Tennessee and dramatic trials

Graham given special designation to hear cases till Sept. 1

Staff Photo by Ben Benton / Criminal Court Judge Thomas W. "Rusty" Graham listens as a defense attorney discusses his client's Fifth Amendment rights during a 2016 murder trial in Marion County, Tenn.

Longtime 12th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. "Rusty" Graham has retired from the bench after holding his post since 1990, but he'll keep helping until Sept. 1 when a successor takes over.

Though Graham officially retired June 30, he will remain on the bench on a special designation through the end of August, according to a news release this month from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts in Nashville.

"l haven't focused on retirement yet," Graham said in the release.

"Right now, I have four grandsons. One is a senior in high school, and the other three are under 6 years old. Because of the ages, I'm sure I will be spending considerable time with the three youngest grandsons," he said.

Graham served four terms on the bench over the span of more than three decades in the sprawling 12th Judicial District, which consists of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.

Justin Angel, who will become the district's senior judge, applauded Graham's career and contributions to the court system.

"Judge Graham has been a dedicated and faithful steward of the law and the judiciary for decades," Angel said Monday in an email. "He's worn the robe with respect and distinction while serving our judicial district with honor. He has earned a restful and joyful retirement."

photo Contributed Photo by the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts / Twelfth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Graham.

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Tennessee's first DNA case was among Graham's more memorable trials, he recalled.

"It was about a fellow who abducted a woman from a convenience stand, sexually assaulted and killed her in the woods in Grundy County," Graham said, noting genetic testing at the time was new to courts. "The most important proof was DNA."

He also recalled a case that drew then-new CourtTV to the Marion County Courthouse.

"At the time, that was the only court TV program out there, and they wanted to cover a murder case that I had ordered to be retried," he said. "I said yes because I felt like whatever was going on in my court was open for the whole world to see."

The trial lasted just three days but was more dramatic behind the scenes than expected.

"We had a retired police officer who was acting as the court officer in that trial, and the issue came up about how semi-automatic pistols worked," Graham recalled. "l didn't know this at the time, but our court officer thought he would show the big-city folks in the control room how it works.

"During a break, he was back there with all these technicians who are broadcasting all over the world with this trial. He shows them how his revolver works. He opens the cylinder, and all of the bullets fall out all over the floor. It was just like Barney Fife from 'The Andy Griffith Show.' I'm sure they thought, 'What in the world are we doing here?"'

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Graham expressed his appreciation for the support of his fellow judges over the years, especially amid something such as the uproar in 2002 surrounding a religious group's request of county commissions in the district to post the Ten Commandments in the courthouses and courtrooms.

"We didn't know about this. It just happened, and I showed up one morning to see the Ten Commandments right behind me on the bench," Graham said. "l took it down immediately, and it sort of astonished some of the deputies there. Somebody who maybe didn't wish me well reported me to the local TV stations, so they all got in on that. It was a front-page story in the Chattanooga Times."

Graham said it is time to pass the torch to the next generation of district's judges.

"We now have Chancellor Melissa Willis," Graham said of the current office holder who was elected in 2018 after former Chancellor Jeff Stewart stepped down for health reasons. "She is a great person and quite competent. We are supporting her in everything she wants to do as we have done for Judge Angel."

The district's circuit courts have seen a string of recent changes, including Circuit Court Judge J. Curtis Smith, who also retired effective June 30, Angel said Monday in a follow-up phone interview.

Attorney Bradley Sherman, of Franklin County, moved through the May 2022 Republican primary for an unopposed run on the Aug. 4 ballot to fill Graham's seat, and attorney John "Cam" Cameron, another unopposed Republican, will assume Smith's post, said Angel, who is unopposed in August as well. He noted Willis also is unopposed in August.

Since Smith won't be staying on until the new judges take office Sept. 1, Angel said he and Graham will handle the caseload.

"Thankfully, Judge Graham is staying on the bench for the next two months in a special-designation status. He's a huge benefit," Angel said. "Without him, I would be the sole circuit court judge for six counties handling both civil and criminal jurisdiction."

After Sept. 1, Graham said, he is looking forward to doing yard work, something he really enjoys.

"l had a very positive experience," Graham said. "I much more enjoyed the 32 years on the bench than the 17 preceding years as a practicing lawyer. I have enjoyed the privilege of being a judge and working with the other members of the bar and bench."

"As far as other things, I'll just have to wait that out," he said.

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