A Criminal Judge

by Rick Wetzel on April 5, 2012

As a Texas criminal appeals lawyer and habeas corpus lawyer, I always enjoy stories which fall into the “truth can be stranger than fiction” category.  A recent story from the Associated Press is a good example.

“Let’s take a 10 minute recess.”

A Knoxville, Tennessee, judge was so addicted to prescription drugs during his final two years on the bench, that he was having sex with defendants and buying pills from defendants during courtroom breaks.  Understandably, his conduct has called into question many of the cases he presided over, including one of Knoxville’s most notorious murders.

Many people say they didn’t realize Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner had a problem until he stepped down from the bench and pleaded guilty to a single count of official misconduct. It would be another eight months before the seriousness of the judge’s drug problem was revealed, casting uncertainty about whether Baumgartner was sober enough to be sitting on the bench.

The Fallout

Another judge has already tossed out the convictions from the high-profile murder case and ordered new trials. Other defendants are hoping for a similar outcome, and bids for new trials from the many people convicted in Baumgartner’s court could overwhelm the criminal justice system in Knox County, Tennessee’s third-largest county with more than 400,000 residents. Baumgartner was one of three judges in the county who heard felony cases.

“We’re getting pleadings almost daily now from people in the penitentiary filing habeas corpus saying ‘Let me out too.’ It’s raining over here,” said Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols.

Fair, Impartial, Straight, and Sober

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that the State may not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.  U.S. Const. amend. XIV.  A neutral and detached judge is one of the minimum requirements of due process in criminal proceedings.  A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process.  Those criminal appeals, habeas corpus petitions, and writs will continue to flood the courthouse in Knoxville until the full extent of the criminal judge’s misconduct is known.

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