Tracie Hunter trial: Suspended juvenile court judge found guilty on one count

Posted at 1:09 PM, Oct 14, 2014
and last updated 2018-01-11 15:50:59-05

CINCINNATI – The jury foreperson in the criminal trial against former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter said late Tuesday she was "extremely frustrated' jurors were not able to convict beyond one count.

"I am disappointed with the results of our deliberations. The evidence presented by the prosecution was compelling and convincing,'' Sandy Kirkham, the jury foreperson, said in a statement. "It is very disconcerting that a judge might so attempt to manipulate our judicial system without severe consequences.”

The 10-woman, two-man jury deadlocked on eight of nine charges facing Hunter. Jurors did convict her of meddling in the criminal case of her brother, the sixth count of the indictment. Kirkham declined to elaborate on her frustration when reached by phone Tuesday night.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel praised jurors Tuesday, saying they had done a great service by listening to a full five weeks of sometimes complicated and often cantankerous testimony.

The guilty verdict on Count 6 - having unlawful interest in a public contract by providing case documents to her brother, a county employee, before his disciplinary hearing - could send Hunter to jail and permanently disqualify her from the bench.

PHOTOS: From sitting judge to convicted felon, the story of Tracie Hunter's trial

Nadel said he would consider jail time for Hunter, saying Hunter's conduct "dealt a serious blow to public confidence in our system of justice."

"It's a sad day," Nadel said as he reprimanded Hunter after reading the verdict.

"Since ascending to the bench, Judge Hunter has gone from great role model to convicted felon."

Hunter could face a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison. With the conviction, she lost her pay as a suspended judge and could also face disbarment.

Hunter won the hotly-contested 2010 election but didn't take office until nearly 1 1/2 years later after a bitter court fight. She lost the election night vote count but sued to have provisional votes counted and ultimately won by 74-vote margin over Republican John Williams.

TIMELINE: Conflict follows Hunter from election to trial

A Democrat, Hunter has always maintained she did not violate any laws and instead took on a conservative courthouse culture and was targeted by the prosecutor's office. She claimed - and her attorney, Clyde Bennett II - argued during the trial -  that the charges against her were politically motivated because she was an anti-establishment black female judge who disrupted the status quo of the traditionally white, Republican local justice system.

After her January indictment, Hunter was suspended but continued to draw her $121,350 yearly salary.

Hunter offered no comment after the verdict. 

Held to Higher Standard

Nadel said a conviction on a fourth-degree felony would usually warrant probation; but Hunter, as a judge, might deserve a harsher sentence.

"Elected officials are held to higher standard," Nadel said as he chastised Hunter, 47.

"Judge Hunter, this is a sad day for you, your supporters, our system of justice and your family. I'm sad and I know you're sad, too, but that's the way it came out.

"I believe the evidence showed serious ethical violations which included, among others: nepotism, improper judicial temperament, tardiness in rendering decisions and denying public access to your courtroom," Nadel said.

The special prosecutors who tried the case had said they would not seek jail time, and Nadel said he would consider that in deciding on a sentence.

Nadel said he would hold a pre-sentencing hearing and set sentencing for Dec. 2.

The prosecutors can decide if they want to retry her on the other eight counts, Nadel said.

Hunter's attorney said he was surprised by the verdict.

"I'm hurt. I'm stunned. I'm shocked. I thought as a matter of law she should have been found not guilty," Bennett said.

Bennett said he would appeal.

"I think they treated Count 6 as unlawful interference in a public contract, when in fact it’s unlawful interest in a public contract," said Bennett. "I think they lost their way with respect to the law."

"There is no law of unlawful interference. The law was having an unlawful interest in a public contract, meaning that you’re trying to lie or secure a public contract for your brother," Bennett said.

"This was a termination proceeding, so I think they were misguided and did not understand what the law was. I’m not certain they fully understand the law with respect to Count 6."

A Woman of Faith

As Hunter exited the courtroom, filled with at least 10 courthouse deputies, a supporter yelled, 'We love you, Judge Hunter!" 

She replied: "I love you, too."

Asked what Hunter said to him, Bennett said:

"The same thing she's said the entire time I've been involved with her in this case. She's a woman of faith and things might not look well right now, but we believe in God and she believes in God and he'll see her through it."

The jury came to a verdict on Count 6 Friday and told Nadel they were deadlocked on the other counts. Nadel sealed the verdict and charged them to return Tuesday to try to come to an agreement on the other eight.

That verdict was unsealed Tuesday after the jury told Nadel it was still deadlocked.

The verdict came on the fourth day of deliberations in the sixth week of the widely-watched trial.

Nadel commended the jury and thanked them for their service, advising them to not talk publicly about their decision. 

"You did a great public service,'' Nadel told jurors before releasing them. 

Most Damaging Testimony

Hunter faced up to 13 years in prison if convicted of all nine felony counts of theft in office, forgery and having unlawful interest in a public contract.

Special prosecutors R. Scott Croswell III and Merlyn Shiverdecker successfully argued that Hunter meddled with her brother’s firing and employment.

Perhaps the most damaging testimony was that of Hunter's brother, Stephen, who was fired from his job as a juvenile detention corrections officer last year after punching an inmate. Stephen Hunter testified his sister provided him documents related to his firing one day before his pending termination hearing. He then delivered those documents to his attorney, in attempt to prepare for the hearing.

RELATED: Read about Stephen Hunter's testimony

His attorney, Janaya Trotter, testified she took some of the documents but declined to take others because she “didn’t want to be involved in anything unethical.”

Christo Lassiter, a University of Cincinnati professor of law and criminal justice, told WCPO Tuesday that Trotter's testimony sealed Hunter's fate.

"I think the damning, most damning bit of evidence and the turning point in the case was when Jennifer (Trotter) took the stand and said that she didn't accept much of the documents because she felt it would be unethical to do so," Lassiter said. "If the brother's attorney does not want to accept documents because it's unethical, it's very hard for Judge Hunter to maintain that what she did was not wrong.

"The only hope she had was that the jury would say, 'Yes, that was unethical, but no, not illegal.' Unfortunately for her, because it was her own brother and she intervened to access juvenile records, the jury found that she had the requisite mental state to meet the criminal elements for that crime."

RELATED: Read about Janaya Trotter's testimony

The other counts charged that Hunter committed theft in office by charging $1,100 in unauthorized filing fees on her county credit card, committed forgery and tampered with evidence by signing backdated judicial entries to give the defense an edge and to prevent prosecutors from filing appeals, and unlawfully arranged for her brother to work  6 1/2 hours of overtime overseeing security around her courtroom.

Charges in the indictment against Tracie Hunter

Count 1: Tampering with evidence, related to backdating judicial entries.

Count 2: Forgery, related to signing backdating judicial entires. Accused of doing so in two juvenile cases.

Count 3: Tampering with evidence, related to backdating judicial entries.

Count 4: Forgery, related to signing backdating judicial entires. Accused of doing so in two juvenile cases.

Count 5: Having unlawful interest in a public contract, related to securing about seven hours of overtime for her brother work security around her courtroom.

Count 6: Having unlawful interest in a public contract, related to providing documents to her brother one day before his pending termination hearing for punching a juvenile inmate.

Count 7: Theft in office. She was accused of charging Ohio Supreme Court filing fees on two occasions.

Count 8: Theft in office. She was accused of charging Ohio Supreme Court filing fees on two occasions.

Count 9: Misuse of credit card. She was accused of charging Ohio Supreme Court filing fees on two occasions. County-issued card is supposed to only be used for travel and business-related expenses.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is responsible for appointing Hunter's replacement, likely based on recommendations from the Hamilton County Republican Party. Her replacement will sit on the bench for the remainder of her term, set to expire in late 2016. Tom Lipps, a retired Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge who was appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court, and Judge Sylvia Sieve Hendon have filled in during Hunter’s suspension.

WCPO Reporter Tom McKee and Gregory Noble contributed to this report. 

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