Local News

August 29, 2012

JQC: Bogus charge has ‘chilling’ effect on future judicial probes

Citing Murray County case, officials say future judicial probes may have to consider potential threats to witnesses

Two members of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission say a bogus drug charge against one of the commission’s cooperating witnesses is a matter of grave concern that could affect JQC protocols in removing judges from office.

JQC Chairman John Allen said the arrest of Murray County resident Angela Garmley — which the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has called a setup by someone who planted drugs under her car — could prompt the JQC to include the likelihood of potential threats to witnesses in future judicial ethics investigations.

Garmley had publicly accused Murray County’s chief magistrate judge, Bryant Cochran, of soliciting sex from her in return for favorable rulings. Cochran was under investigation by the JQC when Garmley was arrested on Aug. 14, and he resigned a day after the arrest to end the inquiry.

“This is such a rarity and such a serious allegation,” said Allen, who is chief Superior Court judge of the Chattahoochee Circuit in Columbus. “By virtue of it having happened as a repercussion, it may be a part of our future protocol to ... consider that in our dealings with a judge being investigated.”

JQC member S. Lester Tate III said that Garmley’s arrest was “terribly chilling on the work that we do, and I hope that anybody who is found to have engaged in a frame-up of a witness is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

“I think that a continual concern of the commission is retaliation, and that’s one reason that we go to some lengths at some stages to protect people who make reports,” added Tate, a former State Bar of Georgia president. “It is certainly unheard of, and something that, I dare say, we in most instances would have been reluctant to believe, that somebody would go so far as to set up a reporting witness and frame that person. That is beyond the pale and requires a speedy investigation by the authorities.”

On Friday, Conasauga Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston dismissed the felony drug possession charge following the GBI’s determination that the drugs found under Garmley’s car were planted and did not belong to her.

GBI Special Agent James Harris said that dismissing charges against Garmley and a friend of Garmley’s who was arrested with her by a Murray County sheriff’s deputy during the traffic stop was “the right thing to do.”

“We received and located information that helped us make the decision that we need to drop all narcotics charges,” the GBI agent explained.

Harris also said the investigation is ongoing. He would not say whether Garmley’s arrest was linked to accusations she had made against Cochran.

Garmley’s attorney, McCracken Poston (who is not related to the district attorney), said Garmley’s arrest had “a chilling effect” on other witnesses in the ongoing case “until the GBI quickly exonerated” Garmley.

The GBI opened an investigation in Murray County after the district attorney requested a criminal probe of Cochran, Garmley’s arrest and Cochran’s distribution of pre-signed, blank search and arrest warrants to local law enforcement officers who needed them whenever he was unavailable.

In his resignation letter, Cochran admitted issuing the warrants. Cochran’s attorney, Christopher Townley, has called Garmley’s allegations “preposterous” and said that Cochran “adamantly denies” them. On Monday, Townley said the GBI’s finding that Garmley’s arrest was a setup “is inconsequential to Bryant Cochran because he didn’t do anything to get her arrested, and he didn’t do anything to get the charges dismissed.”

Cochran, a former Murray County sheriff’s deputy who does not have a law degree, was re-elected to his third term on July 31. He resigned Aug. 15 and agreed never to seek or hold judicial office.

The district attorney previously told the Daily Report that he wanted the GBI “to focus on whether there are any criminal violations” associated with Garmley’s arrest. “The allegations are so serious and the timing of it is such that we felt it was appropriate for the GBI to take a look at that,” he said.

The DA could not be reached for comment, but on Friday morning, Assistant District Attorney Scott Minter filed the motion to dismiss the felony charge in Murray County Superior Court that stated “it is in the interest of justice” to do so.

McCracken Poston has called Garmley’s arrest a “setup” by a “rogue judge,” and publicly called for a GBI investigation during Garmley’s bond hearing, insisting that the drugs recovered by a sheriff’s deputy did not belong to her and that she did not know they had been hidden under her car.

The attorney said Garmley was relieved the felony drug charge is being dismissed. “She still firmly believes operatives of former Chief Magistrate Bryant Cochran were behind this, motivated by a desire to punish her for coming forward with information that led to his resignation,” McCracken Poston said.

“Murray County citizens should be outraged that this can happen in this day and time. It reads like some Southern gothic novel. Citizens should feel safe ... that they will not have drugs planted upon them and arrests staged on trumped-up charges,” the attorney said.

Garmley and a friend, Jason Southern, were arrested by Murray County Deputy Josh Greeson about 10:30 p.m. Aug. 14 after Greeson stopped the two — who were riding in Garmley’s car — for what the deputy said was a failure to dim the car’s headlights, according to the arrest report, which Poston read to the Daily Report. Garmley was a passenger and Southern was driving.

Greeson said he stopped the vehicle because “failure to dim headlights is an indicator for someone under the influence of alcohol,” according to the incident report.

According to the report, after the vehicle stopped, the deputy employed a county drug dog that was riding with him to search the vehicle’s interior and exterior as well as the trunk and under the hood. The deputy located a small magnetic box, containing what he said he suspected was methamphetamine, attached to the car’s undercarriage directly beneath the driver’s door.

The deputy stated in his police report that he employed the drug dog because Garmley’s speech allegedly was slurred, which “led me to believe she was on some sort of illegal drugs.”

The deputy then arrested Garmley and Southern on felony drug possession charges. Southern was also charged with driving with a suspended license. Garmley’s estranged husband, Joe — who had been driving in another vehicle and arrived at the scene during the traffic stop — also was charged with obstructing a law enforcement officer, according to the incident report.

Poston said Monday that witnesses have told him that the deputy was parked near Garmley’s residence before the traffic stop and that her car’s high beams were not on as the deputy claimed. Poston also said that witnesses who observed the traffic stop said the deputy’s drug dog walked around the car without any visible reaction and then was returned to the patrol car. After the dog was back in the patrol car, Poston said witnesses told him that the deputy walked directly to the driver’s side of the car, reached underneath and pulled out the magnetic box.

Poston said that although the deputy claimed he had been taught that it was common practice for drug dealers to use magnetic boxes to attach illegal drug stashes to a vehicle’s undercarriage, he has not found a prosecutor or defense lawyer who could corroborate the deputy’s assertion. “One said it’s like trusting your valuable stash ... to a refrigerator magnet,” the lawyer said.

When Garmley was arrested, she was cooperating with the JQC’s ethics investigation of Cochran and had told commission investigators that Cochran had propositioned her last April in his office after she went to him to secure arrest warrants against three people she claimed had attacked her and her daughter.

Her attorney has said that Cochran asked to meet with Garmley alone, then began asking her personal and intrusive questions about her sexual relationship with her estranged husband and her pending divorce. During that meeting, Cochran allegedly asked her to be his mistress and suggested that if she returned to his chambers dressed more provocatively she would be “very happy” when her alleged attackers made their court appearance.

In June, Joe Garmley had confronted Cochran in his courtroom while Cochran was running for re-election after learning of his wife’s allegations. According to Angela Garmley, Cochran then began inundating her with telephone calls and text messages begging her not to say anything about their office encounter and pleading with her to stop her husband from going public with his accusations.

Harris, the GBI agent, said that the obstruction charge against Joe Garmley is pending “for right now.” But he did not rule out the possibility that it, too, might be dismissed. Southern, he said, still faces a charge of driving with a suspended license which was unrelated to the GBI’s ongoing investigation.

Greeson, who works a night shift, could not be reached for comment. Murray County Sheriff Howard Ensley has not returned repeated calls from the Daily Report.

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