CINCINNATI – Tracie Hunter's heart seems to be in the right place. When she was elected judge, against all odds for a black, female Democrat, she said she wanted to change the culture in juvenile court, to give young kids who break the law a second chance at life.
One of the first things she did was take shackles off non-violent offenders in her courtroom, breaking a 20-year practice.
"The routine shackling of juveniles, regardless of the type of offense and regardless of whether they present a danger or threat of harm, negates the presumption that they are innocent before being adjudicated delinquent, and is not in the best interest of all children, according to the latest research," Hunter said in 2013.
Many people could probably see merit in that. But before that, she raised eyeballs and ire with her handling of the "bored beating" case – six juveniles who viciously beat up a man in North College Hill in 2012 because they were bored.
It was just four months after she took her place on the bench. Hunter put all six on house arrest. Nine months later, five of them had pleaded out, and Hunter sentenced two of the youngest defendants (ages 13 and 14) to probation until they are 21. She delayed sentencing on three others while she reviewed their psychological reports. They were still awaiting sentencing when she was indicted on nine counts of judicial misconduct 18 months later.
We don't know what prosecutor Joe Deters thought about those cases, but we're guessing he thought juvenile court worked just fine the way it was before Tracie Hunter got there.
That might be too simple to explain how they ended up as adversaries in a Queen City morality play. They were destined to be political adversaries, of course. In Hamilton County, a Democrat in any elected office is a pariah. But Republicans aren't usually so intense or open about their dislike for a Democrat as Deters has been for Hunter.
Four days before she went on trial in 2014, Deters publicly blamed two shooting deaths on Hunter. An 18-year-old who was accused of murder and the man he allegedly shot might be alive today if Hunter had put the gunman behind bars as prosecutors recommended, Deters said in a statement. Police say Tywaun Thomas, 18, shot and killed 21-year-old Antwon Ward in Avondale. Thomas was shot by another suspect and died the next day. Deters said Thomas had 36 convictions when he went before Hunter for sentencing on a charge of aggravated drug trafficking involving heroin. Hunter sentenced Thomas to out-patient treatment, school and work and placed him on electronic monitoring, Deters said.
"Judge Hunter has consistently said that she is doing this 'for the children,'" said Deters. "Well, now we have a dead one.”
Last year, when Hunter filed a federal lawsuit against Deters and 18 other county leaders and attorneys, Deters called it proof that she "needs professional help." Hunter accused them of violating her civil rights and leading to an unfair trial. Defendants included her trial judge, Norbert Nadel; Patrick Dinkelacker, who took over the case when Nadel retired, Juvenile Court Judge John Williams, and more.
"If anyone doesn’t believe that this woman needs professional help, all they need to do is read this lawsuit,” Deters told WCPO.
Maybe Deters was still sore about all the clashes he had with Hunter in 2013 before she was convicted and suspended from the bench.
April 26, 2013: Hunter asked county commissioners to allow her to hire a private attorney at taxpayer expense to defend her in lawsuits by WCPO and the Enquirer over access to her court. Hunter's suit said county prosecutors were biased against her.
May 1, 2013: Hunter held assistant county prosecutor Charles Lippert in contempt because Lippert asked to speak to his boss after Hunter demanded he turn over reports to the defense. A state court had ruled that the reports did not need to be turned over the defense. Later, Hunter withdrew the contempt charge.
May 6, 2013: Hunter named three private attorneys to represent her in a lawsuit filed by WCPO. The attorneys said they took Hunter's case pro bono. Deters, whose office was supposed to represent Hunter, said she has no authority to name her own lawyers and she either had to use attorneys from the prosecutor’s office or have his office secure her counsel. Later, the First District Court of Appeals concurred with Deters. After that, Deters said Hunter refused to talk to his office about the case.
May 20, 2013: Hunter told the county prosecutor's office she no longer wanted it to represent her in lawsuits by WCPO and the Enquirer, according to court documents filed by the prosecutor's office.
Aug. 26, 2013: Deters said his office would no longer represent Hunter after she filed grievances against him and three of his attorneys with the Ohio Supreme Court. That allowed Hunter to hire her own attorneys as she wanted. Deters said Hunter accused him of slandering her. “I don't know what she's talking about," he said. Hunter said Deters was trying to defame her. "It is disturbing that an individual who has never personally, nor professionally met me, continues to make dishonest, inflammatory statements about me in a public forum, calculated to fuel hatred," Hunter said in a statement.
Sept. 13, 2013: Assistant county prosecutor Bill Breyer said Hunter or someone directed by her may have committed a crime by backdating documents in her court. Following an investigation, Breyer said the company that operates the software in juvenile court determined that two documents filed and signed by Hunter were not created until weeks after they are dated. In both case, the backdating prevented prosecutors from appealing Hunter's rulings, Breyer said.
Sept. 23, 2013: Two special prosecutors, Scott Croswell and Merlyn Shiverdecker, were appointed to investigate the backdating allegations.
That's how we got to Hunter's indictment on nine counts of judicial misconduct and her conviction on one count in October, 2014.
Maybe Hunter was right then, on the day she was indicted, when she told her staff in an email that Hamilton County “was not ready for its first African-American Democrat judge.”
"I understand many of the changes I made or was in the process of making were not always welcome," she said. She added that she “learned and understand that change is difficult for most people, especially after 110 years.”
Maybe she just didn't know how to play the game. Maybe she learned the hard way.
State Sen. Cecil Thomas has often claimed that Hunter was a victim of political persecution by the Republican prosecutor and county machine.
"They threw all these charges on the wall...none of them had any real basis whatsoever. We knew [from] the history of her situation this was basically just an attempt to get her off the bench," Thomas said.
Thomas said Republicans have been out to get Hunter since she lost the initial vote count to Williams, but then sued to have hundreds of provisional votes counted. It took a year and a half – after Republican challenges by the local Board of Elections and Ohio secretary of state – before a federal judge ruled in Hunter's favor, and those disputed votes elected her.
"It was just another example of the abuse of the authority of the position," Thomas said.
After she finally took the bench in 2012, Hunter and Republicans had nasty battles over everything - from who got the bigger courtroom to who should be the presiding judge.
Remember that email to her staff? It was titled, “Thank you and goodbye for now.”
Now it looks like Hunter could be making a comeback.
Getting her case into federal court and out of common pleas -- at least temporarily - was genius on her attorneys' part. Hunter will find more friends there, like she did after she contested the 2010 election results and won her judgeship. Hunter actually won in 2012 because that's how long she had to wait for Judge Susan Dlott to order disputed ballots counted.
It wouldn't be a shock if she gets a new trial and wins again.
Deters might even welcome her back.