Local News

May 14, 2014

Former Murray chief magistrate faces six federal charges (Updated 7:30 p.m.)

A former Murray County chief magistrate has been indicted on federal charges related to planting drugs on a woman’s car, orchestrating her arrest on the trumped up charge and having others help cover up what happened.

Bryant Cochran, who resigned in the summer of 2012 amid an ethics probe and civil rights investigation, was indicted on Wednesday by a grand jury in U.S. District Court in Rome on the charges, which also allege he violated former employees’ rights. He is scheduled for arraignment today at 1:30 p.m. in federal court.

“Cochran is charged with crimes that reflect that he completely abused the power and trust given to him by the people of Murray County,” U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said in a news release. “First, he attempted to use his judicial position to solicit sexual favors from a female citizen. And, once the alleged misconduct came to light, Cochran tried to use his power and influence to cover up the incident by having the citizen framed for drug possession and by tampering with a witness.”

Murray County resident Angela Garmley has said she came to Magistrate Court in 2012 when Cochran was chief magistrate and asked his help regarding a case. Instead of assisting her, Cochran began asking her for sexual favors, Garmley has said through her attorney, McCracken Poston of Ringgold. Poston said that when Garmley refused and filed a complaint against Cochran through the Judicial Qualifications Commission, Cochran had meth planted on her car and orchestrated a plan to have her arrested.

Poston said the plan was engineered as part of an effort to discredit Garmley’s claims before the commission. Cochran resigned before the commission completed its investigation. Through his attorneys, Cochran has repeatedly denied Garmley’s claims.

On Wednesday, one of Cochran’s attorneys, Page A. Pate, said he isn’t surprised at the indictment but doesn’t believe the government has a substantive case.

“We know the government has been investigating this for many months,” Pate said. “I don’t believe the case is any stronger now than when the case began. I do think it’s a very weak case.”

Poston, who along with Chattanooga attorney Stuart James represents Garmley as well as three female former Magistrate Court employees, has filed a civil suit claiming those employees were sexually harassed while working with Cochran. The indictment alleges at least some of those claims are true. Phil Friduss, who is representing Cochran in the civil lawsuit, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on Wednesday, but in the past Friduss has denied those claims.

James said the former employees’ lawsuit against Cochran is in Murray County Superior Court, and he plans to file an amended version of the claim that includes allegations in the criminal indictment.

The six counts against Cochran are:

• “conspiracy against rights” for working with “others known and unknown” to intimidate Garmley in her right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution.

• “deprivation of rights under color of law” for violating a former court clerk’s “right to be free from willful sexual assault.”

• “deprivation of rights under color of law” for searching someone’s personal cellphone without permission.

• “deprivation of rights under color of law” in that he “caused” Garmley “to be arrested for possessing methamphetamine, knowing that (she) did not knowingly possess said methamphetamine.”

• “conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance” for working with others to distribute the meth.

• “tampering with a witness” for persuading someone to provide false information to law enforcement officers.

Pate said Cochran plans to plead not guilty to the criminal charges.

“My position is if they (prosecutors) had a good case, they would have charged him a long time ago,” Pate said.

The most serious of the charges carries up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. If Cochran is convicted, the court will consider a number of factors before determining the actual sentence.

Pate said he was surprised to see the sexual allegations in the federal indictment since they previously haven’t been given much credit in civil court.

“I don’t believe, number one, that they’re true,” Pate said. “Even if they were true, I don’t believe that constitutes a federal crime.”

James said now that the criminal charges have surfaced, he’ll also ask the federal court in Rome to reconsider a civil lawsuit Garmley filed alleging her civil rights were violated.

“I think the indictment is important for our clients,” James said. “They feel that the justice process is working, and they hope that it continues to work.”

In a written statement on behalf of Garmley, the former employees and two others arrested in connection with Garmley being falsely charged, Poston thanked the FBI, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for bringing the charges, which he said are “a first step toward justice.”

“Now that the government has finally made federal criminal charges against the former judge, we look forward to watching Mr. Cochran avail himself of each and every constitutional right and privilege that he wanted to deny my clients,” Poston said.

Cochran called several local police officers to tip them off that Garmley carried drugs in her vehicle, according to the news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Two days after Clifford Joyce, one of Cochran’s former tenants in a trailer park Cochran owned, planted drugs on Garmley’s vehicle, then-Murray County Sheriff’s Office deputy Josh Greeson stopped the vehicle on Aug. 14, 2012, and searched it with a drug dog for about 15 or 20 minutes, according to the release, without finding any drugs. Then former sheriff’s office captain Michael Henderson, who is Cochran’s cousin, “told an officer at the scene that according to his information, the citizen (Garmley) hid her drugs in a magnetic box under the left, rear tire well.”

The release states Greeson looked there and found the metal box magnetically attached to the vehicle. The day after Garmley’s arrest, Cochran resigned. About a week later, Joyce admitted to investigators he planted the drugs at Cochran’s request. The local District Attorney’s Office quickly dismissed the charge against Garmley.

Greeson, Henderson and Joyce have all pleaded guilty in federal court and been sentenced for their crimes. Greeson and Henderson pleaded guilty to witness tampering.

“It is important for citizens to have confidence in public officials, especially those entrusted with upholding and enforcing the law,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan said in the news release. “The indictment of Cochran shows that people in these positions will be held accountable when they are involved in criminal activity. The GBI is committed to work with our federal partners to ensure those in a position of trust are held accountable.”

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