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August 18, 2012

GBI investigates ex-Murray judge

Impact of pre-signed warrants unknown

A former Murray County judge already under investigation by a state watchdog agency for alleged sexual misconduct is now the target of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation criminal inquiry.

Bryant Cochran resigned his post as Murray’s chief magistrate after eight years Wednesday, admitting that he pre-signed warrants. The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission was investigating those allegations along with charges he made inappropriate sexual advances towards 36-year-old Angela Garmley of Chatsworth.

District Attorney Bert Poston said he asked the GBI on Friday to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Tuesday arrest of Garmley. She is out on a $2,500 bond after the Murray County Sheriff’s Office charged her with possession of methamphetamine. Garmley has denied the drug was hers and instead said she was “set up” because she prompted a JQC inquiry into whether Cochran inappropriately solicited her.

McCracken Poston, Garmley’s attorney who is not related to Bert Poston, said Garmley suspects a man who works in a mobile home park Cochran owns planted the meth under her car. She said she saw him outside her home only hours before her arrest with what she felt was a “lame” excuse for being there. The officer who found the meth stopped a friend who was driving her home in her vehicle. He then used a drug dog to find the substance in a magnetized metal can under her vehicle.

“The allegations that she makes are obviously very serious, and with the timing of everything we felt it would be appropriate for the GBI to look into that further,” Bert Poston said.

McCracken Poston had called for Cochran’s resignation and for an outside agency to investigate the circumstances surrounding Garmley’s arrest.

“I’m certain they will take it very seriously,” he said.

Potential fallout

Cochran has not returned several phone messages, but he said in a written statement after his resignation that he accepted “full responsibility” for the warrants that were pre-signed. Just how far back the practice goes is unclear. Jerry Scott, a special agent in charge with the GBI, said he could not provide details of the extent of the investigation nor did he know how long it would take.

Bert Poston said it is unlawful for law enforcement officers to knowingly use improperly issued warrants, but he didn’t immediately know what kind of penalty the law provides for the offense.

Greg Kinnamon, an attorney for Murray County government, said the county has liability insurance that can cover civil matters if needed.

“However, there would have to be a civil suit filed, and nothing has been filed yet that I’m aware of,” Kinnamon said. “If there was a warrant that was signed that was not sworn to before the judge, then it wouldn’t necessarily lead to money damages where an insurance company would get involved, but it might make the case unprosecutable.”

Several people told The Daily Citizen they claimed to have been victimized by the pre-signing process, at least one in a case going back seven years. Public defender Mike McCarthy didn’t return a phone call seeking comment Friday.

It’s unclear what will happen since the JQC completed its investigation into the alleged sexual misconduct. Bert Poston said that agency will share its findings with the GBI.

“Based on my meetings with the JQC investigator, it does not appear that the allegations of a sexual nature require any additional criminal investigation, and I have not asked the GBI to investigate those matters,” Poston said. “I am not aware of any potential criminal charges arising out of those allegations.”

Chief Superior Court Judge William Boyett said he and his fellow three judges in the circuit will decide who they will appoint to the position as required by state law. Because of the timing of the next election, whoever they choose will be in office until Jan. 1, 2015, he said. Cochran’s term would have expired Dec. 31, but voters in the July 31 primary elected him to another four years.

Boyett said officials plan to advertise the position in The Chatsworth Times, which is Murray County’s legal organ, beginning Wednesday. Applicants will have until Sept. 7 to submit a resume to the court. They must be willing to undergo a criminal background check, be at least 25 years old and have lived in Murray County at least one year.

Boyett said the judges plan to make an appointment “as soon as possible” after reviewing the applications and conducting interviews.

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