The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is looking into allegations of retaliation by local George Floyd protest leader Marie Mott after she shared a social media post featuring the grandson of the Hamilton County General Sessions judge presiding over her case and called on the judge to recuse himself.
Judge Gary Starnes recused himself Friday afternoon, but emphasized that his recusal came after the "vicious, personal attacks" on social media about himself and his grandson, which "have made it impossible for me to hear at least one of those cases."
Members of the small group of protesters, led by Mott and Cameron "C-Grimey" Williams, face multiple charges stemming from two separate July incidents: the burning of a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office flag and the blocking of an emergency vehicle.
Mott's attorney, McCracken Poston, told the Times Free Press on Friday, "The prosecution is being more intimidating than anything these kids have said.
"If they're talking about intimidation, they are practicing it. Because they're trying to manufacture more charges out of nothing. And I welcome any TBI investigation because there are First Amendment issues involved in this."
On Tuesday, Starnes declined a verbal request to dismiss the case prior to hearing evidence, a move that would have been premature due to prosecutors opposing the request for dismissal.
Mott took to Facebook the following day and shared a group of Starnes' photos from his personal Facebook page, saying, "Judge Starnes needs to recuse himself from our case! You can't support police and be impartial in our case!"
The photos showed Starnes' 9-year-old grandson carrying a replica of a shotgun over his shoulder and dressed in what Starnes called a SWAT uniform and leading a small group of other children through the neighborhood to show support for police.
"Very proud," Starnes wrote.
The post was discussed by several others on social media calling on Starnes to recuse himself.
Mott was one of the most prominent leaders of Chattanooga's summer of protests over the May 25 death of Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis. The death in custody sparked a national reckoning over police brutality.
Starnes, as a General Sessions judge, would not have been the trial judge. A General Sessions judge's role is to hear the evidence in a criminal case and determine whether there's enough evidence to send the case to a grand jury.
The grand jury would then take another look at the evidence and vote on whether to formally indict the defendants.
"I would have been 100% unbiased and impartial in every way," reads a statement by Starnes.
But, "In order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, to avoid any negative effect on the judiciary, and in the interest of my grandson's privacy and safety, I have decided to recuse myself from all the cases effective immediately."
Judge Gary Starnes' statement regarding his recusalView
The Administrative Offices of the Courts will be in charge of appointing another judge to hear the evidence in the cases.
In the meantime, the TBI has been tasked with determining whether Mott's statements or actions amount to retaliation or threats.
A charge of "retaliation for past action" is a Class E felony and carries a punishment of one to six years and a fine of up to $3,000.
Mott has announced her candidacy for Chattanooga City Council. People who have been convicted of a felony cannot serve as an elected official for the city of Chattanooga.
Contact Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.