Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump's office has been disqualified from any involvement in the appeal of a second-degree murder conviction that Crump is accused of securing under threat of blackmail.
The allegations, which Crump has denied, came to light when Chattanooga attorney Bill Speek filed a series of motions seeking a new trial for his client, Miranda Cheatham, who was convicted in the 2016 killing of her husband, James Cheatham. She was sentenced to 18 years in prison, though she has maintained she was acting in self-defense.
In an order written Thursday, Senior Judge Don Ash disqualified Crump's office from the case, adding, "the office will have no communication and provide no cooperation with the incoming [substitute] district attorney other than the transfer of files at the appropriate time."
Ash is the third judge appointed to the case after two other judges recused themselves citing personal conflicts.
"The disqualification of Mr. Crump and his office was inevitable. Now, even he agrees," Speek told the Times Free Press. "With the revelations that came to light, no judge in this state would have allowed his office to remain on this case. Mr. Crump's agreement to disqualify is analogous to resigning before you're fired. Our focus remains on obtaining a new and fair trial for Miranda Cheatham."
Judges order disqualifying DAG Steve Crump's officeView
To that, Crump said the comments "continue to ignore and fail to address the simple question of how this alleged blackmail was accomplished."
"Was the independent grand jury also blackmailed to find probable cause that Miranda Cheatham murdered James Cheatham?" Crump wrote in an emailed response to the Times Free Press. "The Bradley County Grand Jury did that, not the District Attorney. Was the independent trial jury also blackmailed to find that Miranda Cheatham murdered James Cheatham? They did that, not the District Attorney. And finally, was the independent trial judge also blackmailed to affirm the jury verdict? He did that, not the District Attorney. No prosecutor made any of those decisions. Each of these decisions was made by an independent and different group of people."
In his pleading, Crump notes the decision to step away from the case was not one he took lightly, as his office is "charged with the prosecution of every criminal case in the Tenth Judicial District.
"That grave responsibility should only be passed to another where the law, or justice, requires it."
And while he doesn't believe the law requires his office be removed from involvement in the case, "justice and the confidence of the public do," he writes.
"The case at bar represents a case where such transparency is necessary," he says. "The allegations are of such nature that the community must be assured that the cases litigated in this office are impartial, free of undue influence and just."
Crump added that his office will "immediately consult" with the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to appoint a substitute district attorney and to have the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation look into "whether any extortion was committed."
DAG Steve Crump's pleading agreeing to step off the caseView
The accusations leveled against Crump claim his office withheld an allegedly incriminating recorded conversation between James Cheatham's siblings in which the sister confesses an alleged prior affair with Crump and admits to threatening to "f—- his whole life up" by airing their alleged affair if "something didn't happen soon" in prosecuting the case.
The recording, which would have been considered favorable evidence to the defendant, was never produced at trial despite prosecutors having been made aware of it by the Cleveland Police Department. Police Chief Mark Gibson was the only person who listened to the recording until after the trial, according to prosecutors.
Other accusations include several instances of misconduct by the prosecutors who tried the case: Coty Wamp and Drew Robinson.
"The issue appears to be that from the very beginning of the case Mr. Crump put his own personal interests to protect his reputation above his ethical interests to disclose evidence he knew he was in his possession," said Mike Working, president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "His legal filing states all these political platitudes about justice but none of those mean anything unless he takes the stand and tells the whole truth about his knowledge of that favorable evidence."
Crump said Working's comment was "particularly curious" as it "has to be the first time this group [TACDL] has ever said that an allegation was anything more than that; merely an accusation. Every year in legal education courses they tell young defense lawyers to tell juries to wait and hear all the evidence and not make their minds up based upon a mere allegation. Apparently that admonition is situational."
"An ethical prosecutor is prohibited from publicly discussing any pending case. Mr. Crump repeatedly violates ethics rules on this point," Working later said. "Attorneys across the state look forward to his testimony. Anyone has that right."
DAG Crump's statement in response to the defenseView
Crump has said and continues to say there never was an affair and he believes the recording was actually a ploy to get his office removed from the case, because the victim's family member who created it had been "very dissatisfied with the pace of the investigation and at a meeting in May 2017 stated that if our office didn't charge Miranda Cheatham quickly he would see that someone else prosecuted the case."
He has also said that he did offer to discuss potential conflicts of interest with Amy Reedy, Miranda Cheatham's trial attorney, and offered to recuse himself if necessary.
According to Crump, the potential conflicts involved Crump previously being the victim's sister's lawyer and him having been her massage therapy client. It's not clear whether Reedy was made aware of the recording.
Ultimately, Reedy did not seek to have Crump recuse himself.
A hearing on the motion for a new trial is set for July 12 of next year, with a status hearing set for Jan. 22.
Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.