The Georgia Court of Appeals has agreed with prosecutors that DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker was wrong to reverse the felony corruption convictions of a former county school district administrator and her ex-husband.
The decision by the three-judge appeals panel on Wednesday extends a roller-coaster ride for the defendants, who were released from prison after Becker’s surprise order last fall. The appeals court vacated Becker’s order granting a new trial to former schools chief operating officer Pat Reid.
Judge William Ray II wrote for the panel that even though Becker didn’t believe the testimony of Reid’s co-defendant and former boss, Crawford Lewis, Becker did not fully weigh Lewis’ testimony against the remaining evidence before granting a new trial to Reid. The court remanded Reid’s case to the trial court for further consideration of Reid’s motion for new trial.
The panel also reversed Becker’s order granting a new trial to Reid’s ex-husband, architect Tony Pope, stating she lacked authority over that matter.
A county grand jury indicted Reid, Pope and Lewis, the former schools superintendent, for conspiracy and theft in July 2013. The charges stemmed from allegations they manipulated school construction contracts for personal gain.
In October 2013, Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge in exchange for his testimony at trial against Reid and Pope. A trial jury convicted Reid and Pope in November 2013 of racketeering. Reid also was convicted of theft.
Reid received a 15-year prison sentence, and Pope received an eight-year prison sentence.
Lewis’ plea agreement with the DeKalb district attorney’s office called for a sentence of 12 months of probation. But Becker rejected that part of the deal and instead sentenced Lewis to a year in prison.
“Without challenging the truthfulness of Lewis’ testimony, the trial judge—admittedly incensed by what she considered to be the ‘abhorrent’ criminal conduct of all involved—emphasized that Lewis was ‘a public official, this was on his watch, he stood by. And then he hindered and interfered with and tried to stop the completion of a rightful, lawful investigation,'” Ray wrote in the opinion, quoting Becker’s words at Lewis’ sentencing.
Lewis then filed a motion for reconsideration, which Becker denied. The appeals court found Becker “changed her rationale for refusing to consummate the previously agreed upon plea deal, and stated for the first time that her rejection of Lewis’ plea and the resultant sentence were based upon ‘the credibility, the believability, the probability or the improbability of (Lewis’) testimony.'”
Lewis appealed, and the DA’s office—concerned about its credibility in making plea deals—took Lewis’ side. The Court of Appeals last October remanded Lewis’ case to Becker so she could identify specific testimony by Lewis that she considered to be questionable. In a footnote of that opinion, the court implied that if the credibility of Lewis’ testimony was in question, then the validity of Reid’s and Pope’s convictions should also be questioned.
Becker responded before the appeals court could send its remittitur, pointing out pieces of Lewis’ testimony she found untruthful and ordering new trials for Reid and Pope.
The Court of Appeals responded, halting her orders and the release of Reid and Pope from prison.
Reid and Pope had indeed filed motions for new trials, but Pope’s attorney withdrew his motion just before Becker entered her order and filed a notice of appeal. The DA’s office has alleged that this action was the result of ex parte communications between Becker and Pope’s lawyer.
Because Pope no longer had a pending motion for new trial, the Court of Appeals on Wednesday found that Becker’s order related to Pope was improper as a matter of law.
Becker later acknowledged that she was the subject of an investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission but said she would step down March 1 to get married. Gov. Nathan Deal received a short list of candidates from his Judicial Nominating Commission nearly two months ago but has not yet made an appointment.
DeKalb Superior Court Judge Gregory Adams granted Reid and Pope bond in December.
A spokeswoman for DeKalb District Attorney Robert James had no comment.
Reid’s attorney, Tony Axam, said his client will remain free on bond while the trial court considers her motion for new trial. Axam also said he is confident that Lewis’ testimony was crucial for prosecutors and so the remaining evidence would not be enough to convict his client.
However, Axam seemed perplexed that another judge, one who did not witness Lewis’ testimony first hand, will be the one to decide whether Reid should get a new trial.
“I contend only Judge Becker can talk about whether Crawford Lewis passed the smell test,” he said.
Axam said he may consider subpoenaing Becker as a witness.
Pope’s attorney, John Petrey, could not be reached for comment.