Judge says he isn't recusing himself from overturned 2012 murder case

Judge says he isn't recusing himself from overturned 2012 murder case

December 16th, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Accompanied by court officer Tim Higgs, right, defendant Tony Bigoms enters Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom during the first day of testimony in his murder trial. Bigoms is accused in the 2012 slaying of Dana Wilkes.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

A Chattanooga judge said he will not recuse himself from a murder case overturned by an appeals court after public defenders claimed he was biased against the defendant.

Tony Bigoms was charged with murder and abuse of a corpse in the 2012 beheading of Dana Wilkes and was convicted in a jury trial in 2014.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Bigoms' convictions in June and awarded him a new trial in Hamilton County. But defense attorneys claimed Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman's description of Bigoms' crimes as "barbaric" and "heinous" showed he was too biased from the proof at Bigoms' first trial to preside over the new one.

In a motion filed Wednesday, Steelman said he doesn't need to reassign the case to another judge. He said he made those comments after the jury heard numerous days of proof and returned guilty verdicts. Steelman was, in essence, approving the jury's verdict, he said.

And case law backed him up, Steelman said: "The approval of a prior verdict [of guilt], standing alone, is not a cause for recusal."

Attorneys can't frivolously request a recusal because they disagree with a judge's ruling. The national standard is whether a judge's impartiality might be "reasonably questioned."

Bigoms' public defender, Jay Underwood, declined to comment Friday on Steelman's order. Underwood could appeal the order in the middle of proceedings or wait until afterward.

One of the reasons Bigoms received a new trial is because Steelman improperly allowed prosecutors to mention a 2006 slaying in which Bigoms was acquitted, according to the appeals opinion.

It isn't uncommon for judges to hear inadmissible evidence, Steelman said. Attorneys often have hearings outside the jury's presence when they don't agree on a legal issue.

Nor is it uncommon for judges to express agreement with a jury's verdict, Steelman said.

The judge said he didn't rely on any out-of-court statements to form an impression of Bigoms.

"In no instance did the undersigned judge prejudge factual issues or prematurely express an unfavorable opinion," Steelman said. "In no instance did the undersigned judge rely on [outside-of-court] information. In every instance, the basis for his findings and rulings was the proof."

Bigoms' new trial is scheduled for July 24.

Prosecutors previously said duck hunters discovered Wilkes' body, headless and handless, along the South Chickamauga Creek about two weeks after she disappeared from her Palo Verde Drive home. Authorities found Bigoms' DNA on her nearby bra and said he was the last person with Wilkes before her death, news accounts show.

Bigoms has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.