Public defenders are calling on a local judge to recuse himself from a 2012 homicide case that an appellate court sent back to Hamilton County earlier this year.
Because he saw the proof in the first trial in 2014 and formed a negative impression of Tony Bigoms, Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman shouldn't be allowed to preside over the 58-year-old's new legal proceeding, public defenders say.
"Court has already heard, and been swayed, by evidence in this case," defender Jay Underwood wrote in a motion, referencing comments Steelman made during Bigoms' sentencing hearing in 2014.
The Times Free Press could not obtain a copy of those comments Thursday, but Underwood said they indicate Steelman believes Bigoms was guilty. "Therefore, recusal is necessary," he wrote. "[Bigoms] is entitled to a trial at which he is presumed innocent — not one in which he has already been prejudiced by the Court."
Steelman could not be reached for comment Thursday. Neither could the spokeswoman at the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office. But prosecutors are contesting the recusal, and Steelman said he would take the matter under advisement after a hearing Wednesday. The next court date is Dec. 14.
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."
If Steelman dismisses himself, a different Criminal Court judge would be assigned to the case, said Circuit Court Judge J.B. Bennett. As presiding judge for the 11th Judicial District, Bennett said he would sign any final order. If Steelman stays on the case, Bigoms can appeal his ruling during the proceedings or raise concerns about it afterward.
In 2014, jurors convicted Bigoms of first-degree murder and abuse of a corpse in the November 2012 slaying of Dana Wilkes. Prosecutors said duck hunters discovered Wilkes' body, headless and handless, along the South Chickamauga Creek about two weeks after she had 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.
Bigoms contested the jury's decision and received a new trial in June when the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals reversed his convictions.
That court cited issues with jury sequestration and Steelman's decision to let prosecutors introduce testimony about a different 2006 killing for which Bigoms was acquitted. Jurors are not supposed to research a case, and when they're sequestered, they are prohibited access to television, newspapers and all electronic devices while they stay in a hotel under the supervision of county deputies.
Underwood said Bigoms' retrial won't include evidence of that 2006 acquittal for murder.
"If this court does not recuse, there is a danger that it will be swayed by inflammatory and inadmissible evidence," he wrote.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.