The biggest fallout from a judge’s decision to grant five criminal defendants new trials could be a lot more wide-ranging than the possibility of these men going free.
According to Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Scott Ballard, the ruling could easily impact the way not only juries, but judges are selected.
Judge Harold G. Benefield’s ruling comes down because of the sexual affair between Superior Court Judge Pascal A. English and then then-public defender Kimberly Cornwell which was exposed in 2010.
Cornwell represented four of the five cases in front of trial judge English without telling the clients of the relationships.
Originally, Superior Court Judge Fletcher Sams was slated to hear the appeals brought on a motions calendar, but recused himself, allowing Benefield to step in.
“Just from being the courthouse at the time everything was happening,” said Ballard, “he could be construed as a witness in the case. So he stepped out.”
In 2010, Ballard had said that the relationship between English and Cornwell didn’t have any effect on the defendants. Out of the 225 known cases where Cornwell represented defendants in front of English, Ballard’s contention was that none of those cases were prejudiced in any way.
Benefield’s contention, however, was that Cornwell should have let her clients know about the relationship with English, which was uncovered when a deputy found the two having sex in a parked car. Also, English should have recused himself from the trials of the five defendants in question.
Benefield pointed out that the relationship could have created bias against defendants, specifically as in the case of Travion Willis and his co-defendant Christopher Wakefield.
Both men were found guilty of five felony counts related to a carjacking incident including armed robbery and kidnapping. Ballard said both men pled guilty and English sentenced them to life in prison plus 20 years.
After the affair was revealed, English had denied a continuance to Wakefield, despite the fact that his attorney had just acquired the case. Additionally, according to trial notes, English didn’t charge the jury properly, failing to tell them that their decision had to be unanimous.
Benefield said there was no way of knowing if ‘the judge’s failure to have charged the jury was “in some way attributable to his own emotional instability given the wave of infamy which might at any moment have swept over him.”
English retired from the bench after the affair became public.
The other defendants who were granted new trials under Benefield’s ruling include: Calvin Obie Boynton who was found guilty of armed robbery and aggravated assault in a 2009 bank robbery- he received life plus 30 years; Rashad Terrez Arnold, who had been sentenced to 10 years to serve on a burglary conviction; and William Jacob Nutt, who was convicted of aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery for raping the child of the family he was staying with just days after he had been released from prison. English sentenced him to life in prison.
Ballard noted that before a defendant could be granted a new trial, the defendant had to prove not only that an error existed, but that he had been harmed by that error.
“The judge in this ruling found that there was a different kind of error - a structural error- and as a result the defendant didn’t have to prove harm had been caused. Under this ruling, the process is tainted.”
Ballard said that in researching the ruling, his staff had been unable to find any similar cases.
“We even found a case where the judge was charged with bribery, and this didn’t happen.”
Ballards admits to being mystified by the order and concerned at the type of precedent it’s setting.
“More than that, what I find most horrible, is the effect this will have on the victims who didn’t do anything wrong. A new trial could free the person who victimized them.”
Ballard’s concerns echoed Benefield’s when he said that he was also concerned about the victims’ “personal horror of having to confront the defendant in court and relive the event through her testimony” and if other judges overturned his ruling, “I cannot say that I would be entirely displeased.”
More, said Ballard, “this could impact the interview process, with every judge’s personal life subject to question. It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to understand that some attorneys will try to use this creatively.
“In the past a lawyer never made this inquiry into a judge’s personal life or business relationships. This could set a terrible precedent. But, more than that, the bottom line is that four victims could see their attacker go free.”
Ballard’s office filed an appeal with the Georgia Court of Appeals asking it to overturn Benefield’s order.
“We’re fighting it. We don’t believe there is a single incident where the sentencing was inconsistent. We just don’t think anything happened and, more than that, we don’t think the law authorizes a new trial.”
It could take months before a ruling is handed down from the state Court of Appeals.