As Knox County prosecutors gird themselves for a potential onslaught of appeals in convictions they obtained before a disgraced and now disbarred criminal court judge, political fallout at the state level is just beginning.
State lawmakers who chair the House and Senate judiciary committees say the saga of Judge Richard Baumgartner’s ignominious descent into drug addiction, criminality and professional impropriety will almost certainly strengthen calls for sweeping judicial ethics reform in Tennessee.
“Surely the people that worked around him knew that he was on drugs,” said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers. “So what’s their obligation to report it? We’ve really got to look at our system and what’s going on.”
Added House Judiciary Chairman Eric Watson, “Something’s going to have to be done.”
On Dec. 1, a judge ordered retrials for all four defendants convicted in the kidnapping, rape and torture slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23.
The 2007 crimes were shocking for their extraordinary violence and sexual brutality. The fact that the defendants were black and the victims white sparked racial tensions in the community. Three men and one woman were tried separately before Judge Baumgartner for their roles in the crimes. One of the men convicted in the case was sentenced to die, and the others received prison terms ranging from 53 years to life without parole. A fourth man was convicted in federal court of aiding one of the perpetrators and sentenced to 22 years.
But retrials were ordered for all the state-court convicted defendants after a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into Judge Baumgartner’s activities revealed that he had, over the course of several years, been illegally buying and abusing prescription painkillers in his chambers. The investigation revealed Judge Baumgartner was likely under the influence of drugs when he presided over the Christian/Newsom trials, and many other cases.
Baumgartner was one of the founders of the Knox County Drug Court program. First appointed to the bench by Gov. Ned McWherter in 1992, Baumgartner presided over the high-profile murder trials of Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey and Raynella Dossett Leath.
The state’s legal apparatus for detecting and dealing with unethical judges, the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, took no action against Judge Baumgartner until after he pleaded guilty on March 10 to one count of “official misconduct,” a Class E felony. As part of the plea agreement offered by Al Schmutzer, Jr., a former Cocke County district attorney who served as a special prosecutor, Baumgartner agreed to resign his post as a Knox County Criminal Court judge.
On March 29, Baumgartner was placed on “interim suspension” by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary.
That the Court of the Judiciary didn’t catch wind earlier of the ongoing judicial meltdown in Tennessee’s third most populace county is further evidence all is not well in the state court system, suggested Beavers. The Court of the Judiciary is scheduled to “sunset” as of July 1, unless the Tennessee General Assembly passes legislation that says otherwise.
In the event that the COJ is disbanded — an increasingly likely outcome, said Beavers — responsibility for investigating and disciplining judges would revert to the Legislature.
Other lawmakers are taking issue with Baumgartner’s ability to keep his taxpayer-funded pension. In spite of laws passed in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal requiring public officials to forfeit that income in the event of an office-related conviction, because Baumgartner was granted judicial diversion there won’t likely be a conviction entered into the record to trigger the pension revocation — provided he stays out of further trouble for the next two years.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally said he is drafting legislation requiring government officials to surrender their pensions even if granted diversion for a felony charge, an issue Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday is “worthy of discussion.”
McNally is also asking U.S. Attorney William C. Killian to investigate whether there are federal charges that could be brought against Baumgartner — which could also lead to him losing his pension. McNally’s also asking the Tennessee State Comptroller to investigate payments the judge authorized to defense attorneys in the Christian/Newsom murder trials.
News outlets in Knoxville reported last week that anywhere between dozens and thousands of cases that went through Judge Baumgartner’s courtroom in the past several years could be subject to review.
Attorney General Robert Cooper confirmed to TNReport that his office is aiding the Knox County District Attorney’s Office to try to get a handle and read on the magnitude of the legal disaster they’re facing.
The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week that Judge Baumgartner disposed 3,341 cases in the timeframe in which he is suspected to have been “doctor-shopping” and cavorting with known felons, including a drug dealer convicted in his court.
WBIR-TV in Knoxville reported that the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office believes that “less than 40” retrials are likely.
Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood earlier this month ordered the release of 155 pages of TBI interview summaries and transcripts that formed the basis of his decision to order retrials in the Christian/Newsom case.
Those TBI files reveal that many court employees and lawyers, including prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office and a sitting judge, knew for a long time something was amiss with Judge Baumgartner, but apparently took no steps to have him officially investigated or removed from the bench.
Judge Baumgartner’s administrative assistant, Jennifer Judy, told the TBI it was widely known around the courthouse that Baumgartner was often mentally incapable of presiding over cases.
“Judy stated on some days he was so impaired that his court clerk or the District Attorney’s office would reset matters scheduled for that day,” according to one TBI interview report.
The TBI report further stated:
Judy said sometimes Judge Baumgartner would ‘buck up’ if he thought he was fine and that she had threatened him before that if he went into the courtroom impaired, she was not going in with him and be subjected to the ridicule from others in the court. She stated that she felt that his peers, other lawyers, including the District Attorney’s office, knew what was going on but they did not confront him about his issues because he was ‘the Judge.’
Within the TBI files is also a summary of interviews conducted with Assistant District Attorneys Leland Price and TaKisha Fitzgerald, lead prosecutors in the case against Vanessa Coleman, the female defendant in the Christian/Newsom murders.
Price and Fitzgerald were traveling together back to Knoxville from Nashville after a court proceeding in the spring of 2010 when they observed Judge Baumgartner in a vehicle ahead of them. According to the TBI’s interview with Price:
Price stated that the Judge was weaving all over the road and driving very erratic to the point of almost causing an accident. Price stated they tried to call him on his cell phone but he would not answer. He said they contacted Jennifer Judy who then called [Baumgartner] and asked him to pull over at the next exit. Price said he believed that [Baungartner] did comply with the request, but [Price] and [Assistant DA Fitzgerald] did not stop at the exit.
Fitzgerald’s account of the incident along I-40, which occurred near Cookeville, is consistent with what Price told the TBI. “[Fitzgerald] stated that [Baumgartner] was all over the road and was a danger to other drivers,” according to the TBI report, written by Darren B. DeArmond.
The TBI file indicates Judge Baumgartner later summoned the two Knox County DA’s assistants into his office and admitted they’d witnessed him driving while impaired:
[Price] advised that on Monday, April 12, 2010, [Baumgartner] called him and ADA Fitzgerald into his chambers and discussed the events of the previous Friday. [Baumgartner] told them he was having some back problems and had taken some medication and should not have been driving.
Price also told the TBI that during courtroom preparations for jury selection in the Coleman trial, Judge Baumgartner seemed “not right,” possibly mentally impaired or “under the influence,” according to DeArmond’s report.
“[Price] said the Judge’s speech was slurred and he seemed incoherent at times and was having problems putting sentences together,” wrote DeArmond, who conducted his interview with the prosecutors on Feb. 3.
“Price stated that he was aware of times when trials have been reset in Division I Court when Judge Baumgartner was not fit to be on the bench,” the TBI report states.
Nevertheless, the Coleman case went forward with Judge Baumgartner presiding. Coleman was ultimately convicted of helping facilitate the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian. In July 2010 she was sentenced to 53 years in prison.
No date has been set for her retrial.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, John Gill, special counsel and chief assistant to Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols, defended prosecutors’ handling of the Judge Baumgartner affair.
“We were aware that he had some health problems, but not that he was abusing drugs or addicted to drugs at all,” Gill told TNReport.
The TBI began investigating Judge Baumgartner in the fall of 2010, after a Knoxville woman reported to local police that her ex-husband had burglarized her home — and that if law enforcement authorities investigated him they’d find he was dealing drugs to a local judge. The incident was reported to the TBI by Jennifer Welch, also a prosecutor with the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.
Chris Craft, who presides over the Court of the Judiciary, told TNReport that the Judge Baumgartner situation was in no way mishandled by the COJ — and that the case in fact ought to demonstrate how important the COJ is to the justice system in Tennessee.
“As far as what we’re doing, we need to keep doing what we’re doing, and we’re doing a good job,” he said.
Craft said that in the case of Judge Baumgartner, the Court of the Judiciary “did everything they were supposed to do.”
“I can think of absolutely nothing we failed to do in this case,” he said.
When the COJ was made aware of the nature of Judge Baumgartner’s behavior — namely, after Baumgartner accepted the plea bargain last March — it acted, said Craft.
Craft would neither confirm nor deny whether the COJ received any complaints against Baumgartner prior to March 10 because that information would only be made public if the COJ filed charges or issued a public reprimand, which it did not.
Craft noted, though, that he’s heard of no one who has come forward publicly and said they filed a complaint against Baumgartner with the COJ that the COJ failed to investigate.
In a letter dated Dec. 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman McNally requested the COJ release “copies of any complaints filed against Judge Richard Baumgartner since 2007 related to drug or alcohol abuse.” McNally said Monday he’s yet to receive a response.
Judge Craft added that all lawyers — prosecutors, defense attorneys and other judges alike — have an “absolute duty” under the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct to report judicial misbehavior or misconduct whenever they suspect or witness it.
“At the Court of the Judiciary, we understand that many attorneys are hesitant to file a written complaint on a judge, so we will take anonymous complaints from attorneys over the phone if we need to in order to get enough information to investigate,” Craft wrote in an email to TNReport. “We can then talk to others who observe the judge and courtroom daily to make sure nothing is happening that is impairing the judge’s performance. There may be an entirely innocent reason the judge is acting differently, such as advancing age, back pain, illness or lack of sleep due to a family illness or other issue, but we still need to know, if it is in fact affecting that judge’s performance.”
Baumgartner could not be reached for comment on this article.
In a story that aired on Knoxville station WBIR-TV back in August, the former judge can be seen addressing members of the Knoxville Metropolitan Drug Commission in a taped video presentation. In it Baumgartner touches on some of the circumstances surrounding his admitted addiction to pain pills.
“I kind of wish that people had been tougher on me and said, ‘What’s going on here?’,” Baumgartner said. “Because I think if more people had done that, I might have gotten the message sooner.”
Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.