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Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press - August 19, 2014 - 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Crump talks about his duties.

A special judge presiding over a hearing in Bradley County, Tennessee, said it could take him 90 days to render a decision on motions for a new trial for a woman convicted of second-degree murder in the 2016 slaying of her husband.

Miranda Cheatham, who contended all along the killing was in self-defense, is challenging her 2018 conviction in the slaying of her husband, James Cheatham, leveling allegations that 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen D. Crump had a conflict of interest in the case that included withholding an audio recording referring to an alleged sexual affair he had with the victim's half-sister and legal title work he did for her in private practice.

Crump has denied the allegations of an affair or that he was being blackmailed into securing a second-degree murder conviction.

Cheatham, originally charged in the killing in June 2017, has been serving her sentence at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Lauderdale County since Jan. 23, 2019, according to Tennessee Department of Correction records. She was found guilty in a 2018 jury trial and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

In late 2020, the judge in the case disqualified Crump's office from Cheatham's bid to overturn her conviction, given the allegations against him. Special Senior Judge Don Ash is the third judge appointed to the case after two other judges recused themselves, citing personal conflicts.

Witnesses taking the stand at Monday's hearing before Ash — livestreamed by WCLE Mix 104.1 radio in Cleveland — included Cleveland police Lt. Daniel Gibbs and Chief Mark Gibson; the homicide victim's half-sister, Dana Cheatham Pritchard; and half-brother, John Loach, an administrative assistant from Crump's office; Crump's former assistant district attorney, Coty Wamp, the lead prosecutor at trial; and a couple of members of Bradley County EMS.

Testimony focused mostly on a secretly recorded conversation between Pritchard and Loach taped during a car ride that, according to Gibbs' testimony, was provided to the police department in May 2017 before Cheatham's case was presented to the Bradley County grand jury.

Pritchard testified she had no idea she was being recorded.

On the recording, Loach told Pritchard he had "pictures of you and Crump," related to an alleged affair with Crump. He testified on Monday he lied about the pictures to get her to talk.

"We had an affair four years ago when he was my lawyer," Pritchard said of her relationship with Crump on the recording. "That's when he became my lawyer."

Because she wanted more and quicker action on the case, Pritchard said, "If I had to, I would go full-blown with it and [put] myself out there."

"I just don't think he would take it to that level because of the fact that he knows I could get him in trouble," she said on the recording. "I think he knows me well enough, and I threatened him — I sent you those messages — I threatened him. Like I told him, I would do, at all costs, whatever it took to make sure everybody knew that he was doing something."

The two continued to talk about the case, both suggesting that others were pressuring Crump to seek probation for Cheatham.

On the recording, she also told Loach that Crump tried to assure her he would not let his private life influence his professional work and that "justice would be served."

After the recording was played Monday, Pritchard testified under questioning by Cheatham's attorney, Bill Speek, that she was acquainted with the foreman on the grand jury in Cheatham's indictment. She denied informing the foreman of any relationship to the victim or discussing the case.

She testified under cross-examination by the state that she had taken prescription medications Prozac and Xanax, had been "drinking some" and was feeling "agitated, dizzy, groggy" during the car ride when the recording was made.

She testified she thought "some things" in the conversation were missing from the recording. She testified she and Loach were not close and were no longer speaking and that Loach made her scared the day of the car ride because of his actions and a gun she said he had in the car.

She testified she lied on the recording when she told Loach she threatened Crump and she denied that she made the statements to Crump that she described to Loach during the car ride. She also testified she lied to Loach about meeting Crump at a hotel, denied meeting Crump in Knoxville or having gone to Knoxville with Crump.

The lead prosecutor, Coty Wamp, said she was aware of the tape before the case went to trial but didn't listen to it.

Wamp testified that she didn't become involved in the case until after it was presented to the grand jury but she was made aware of the tape by Lt. Gibbs prior to trial.

"He very briefly told me that a recording had been dropped off at the Cleveland Police Department before Ms. Cheatham was indicted, and that was a conversation between John Loach and Dana Cheatham that included allegations of an affair," Wamp testified. "That was about the extent he went into because he hadn't listened to it either."

Wamp said she took no action, didn't try to listen to the tape and didn't inform the trial defense team of Amy and Bill Reedy of the tape's existence. She testified the decision not to provide the tape to the defense was made before she started working for Crump.

But Wamp did discuss the recording with Gibbs on several occasions, she discussed it "briefly" with Crump and also with defense attorneys, she said.

Wamp testified months after the trial was over she listened to the recording after a local defense attorney not associated with the case asked the police department for it and Crump's office agreed that it was subject to a public records request. That attorney, Stephen Hatchett, was a former opponent of Crump in the race for district attorney in 2014.

Wamp said she and Gibbs talked about whether they should listen to it.

"We figured if somebody's going to request it and listen to it, we need to listen to it at that point," she said.

Wamp said after hearing the recording she didn't reach out to any family members on either side of the case.

Loach, the victim's half-brother who secretly recorded the conversation at issue while he and Pritchard were riding in his car, testified Monday he made the recording because he wanted to "find out what was going on in my brother's case" and what the holdup was on the indictment. He denied having a gun in the car during the ride.

Loach testified he was unsure of Pritchard's claims of having an affair with Crump until the recorded car ride.

Loach said he kept the recording at his house for a couple of days and then turned it over to Gibbs. He testified he talked with Crump once but denied trying to use the recording to push for an indictment.

In earlier testimony, Mehye Scott, an administrative assistant in Crump's office, testified that she prepared the indictment paperwork in Cheatham's case and acknowledged she prepared and notarized two quitclaim deeds bearing Crump's name as preparer for Pritchard. The deeds were prepared after Crump had been in office for four years, according to testimony. Scott admitted she "doesn't look at documents" she notarizes.

Under cross-examination by the state, Scott testified that a police detective, not Crump, brought her the documents to notarize.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a conflict of interest exists when an attorney cannot exercise his or her independent professional judgment free of "compromising interests and loyalties."

And an appearance of impropriety exists when "an ordinary knowledgeable citizen acquainted with the facts" of a case would conclude that the attorney's interests pose a "substantial risk of disservice to either the public interest or the interest of one of the [parties]."

Cheatham's lawyers argued the recording intentionally was suppressed and would stillhave been unheard at the police department if not for their public records request and that the conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety exists in withholding the recording and performing title work for the family, and those reasons should be grounds for a new trial.

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

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