Two Counts Thrown Out in Federal Criminal Case Against Former Georgia Judge

December 22, 2008 by Kish & Lietz

Former Clinch County Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III faces numerous federal charges for various alleged public corruption activities, ranging from fixing cases to making illegal payments to courthouse employees. Last Monday, two of the charges, involving retaliation against witnesses, were thrown out by the U.S. District court.

The federal statute that was the basis for those charges protects witnesses and victims from retaliation in criminal cases. The indictment in this federal criminal case accuses Blitch of attempting to influence officials in two Georgia towns not to hire an applicant for the police chief position in both cities. That applicant was a former agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation who helped prosecute and convict Blitch’s son in a 1996 arson case.

The District Court ruled that the prosecutors misinterpreted the language of the statute when using it to charge Blitch. His ruling stated that “The statute is intended to protect from retaliation the private citizen who comes forward to provide law enforcement with information about a federal crime.” However, the law does not “protect the law enforcement officer who receives the information.”

Berrien Sutton, Blitch’s former law partner and a former State Court judge who was appointed by Blitch, has been indicted in this case, as well.

Atlanta Criminal Case: Fulton County D.A. has asked United States Attorneys to Charge Brian Nichols in Federal Court

December 16, 2008 by Kish & Lietz

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he has spoken with U.S. Attorneys about a possible death penalty trial against Brian Nichols in federal court for the killing of an off-duty federal agent.

In March 2005, Nichols was on trial for rape in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia. He escaped from custody and, after critically injuring and stealing a weapon from the deputy who was guarding him, murdered the judge and court reporter in his case, as well as a Sheriff's sergeant. Before his capture the next day, Nichols also killed a U.S. Customs agent while robbing him and stealing his vehicle.

On November 7, 2008 a jury found Nichols guilty on all 54 counts charged, including murder, felony murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, theft, carjacking, and escape from authorities. Last week he was sentenced to multiple life sentences after a jury declined to impose the death penalty.

If United States Attorneys decide to charge Nichols with the murder of the off-duty federal agent, Nichols may face the death penalty in the federal case.

Court of Appeals Hears Arguments In Federal Case Involving Alabama's Former Governor

December 12, 2008 by Carl Lietz

Earlier this week, the Federal Court of Appeals that sits here in Atlanta, Georgia heard arguments in the federal criminal case involving Alabama's former Governor and former Health South executive Richard Scrushy. As I previously discussed here, there are a number of interesting issues presented in this federal criminal appeal, including the issue of whether it was legally improper for the federal judge that heard the matter to have ex parte conversations with an agent of the Department of Justice concerning an issue presented in a then-pending motion.

In addition to this argument, lawyers representing the defendants in this matter presented a number of other arguments to the Court of Appeals here in Atlanta. For instance, Mr. Siegelman's lawyer argued that the Government presented insufficient evidence of an explicit quid pro quo and therefore Mr. Siegelman's conviction on the federal bribery charge should be overturned. Additionally, Mr. Scrushy's lawyer argued that Scrushy's conviction should be overturned because of improper jury conduct that allegedly occurred both before and during jury deliberations.

This federal political corruption case has attracted a lot of national attention and according to the New York Times, there is currently a Congressional investigation looking into whether Mr. Siegelman was targeted and investigated for political reasons. You can find the full story concerning the oral arguments and other developments in this case here.

Supreme Court Agrees to Review Eleventh Circuit Sentencing Decision in Federal Criminal Case

December 10, 2008 by Kish & Lietz

On November 14, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review an Eleventh Circuit decision interpreting a federal criminal law. This decision held that firing a gun during a violent crime requires a sentence of at least ten years, even if the gun went off unintentionally. The Eleventh Circuit is located in Atlanta, Georgia and hears appeals from federal cases in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. By hearing this appeal, the Supreme Court will remedy a discrepancy between the circuit courts.

In 2006 Christopher Michael Dean was convicted of taking by force and discharging a weapon during a violent crime. During an armed robbery of a bank in Rome, Georgia on November 10, 2004, Dean accidentally fired his gun while grabbing money from a teller drawer. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

A federal criminal law requires a minimum of ten years in prison for discharging a firearm during a violent crime. This ten-year sentence is in addition to the punishment for the underlying offense. Two federal appellate courts, the Ninth Circuit and the D.C. Circuit, have held that the law requires intent. In other words, in those circuits a defendant must intend to fire the gun to incur the additional ten years. The Tenth Circuit, however, has held that the law applies even when the discharge of the weapon is unintentional. This February, the Eleventh Circuit sided with the Tenth Circuit.

This split in the circuits could result in criminal defendants receiving drastically inconsistent sentences for similar crimes. In this case, Dean’s sentence was more than doubled due to his mistake. Under the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits’ decisions, the same result would occur for defendants in nine states, including Georgia. But in nine other states and Washington, D.C., defendants who accidentally fire their guns would receive significantly shorter sentences under the Ninth and D.C. Circuits’ decisions. The Supreme Court will resolve this inconsistency when they hear this case.

The Supreme Court docket for this case is available here and the Defendant’s reply in support of his petition is available here.