CINCINNATI – What's next in the Tracie Hunter case?
As unpredictable and long as it has been, who could know? But Hunter's supporters and the judge who presided over her 2014 trial and conviction were speaking out after this week's latest twists and turns.
The suspended juvenile court judge and her supporters got an unexpected boost from the special prosecutors' decision to drop the remaining eight charges against her on the very day her retrial was supposed to start. That was just four days after the Ohio Court of Appeals upheld her conviction.
Then the Ohio Supreme Court granted her a second stay on her six-month jail sentence while she appeals to the state's highest court.
State Sen. Cecil Thomas said that was vindication for the black, female Democrat and repeated the claim that she has been the victim of political persecution by the Republican prosecutor and county machine since she ran for the bench in 2010.
"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 Republican John 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, from the county refusing to hire her friend to be her own court administrator to balking at paying for private attorneys for her, from Hunter holding an assistant prosecutor in contempt to objections to her long delayed rulings.
SEE a timeline of Tracie Hunter's trials, tribulations and battles with county Republicans and the Ohio Supreme Court.
Hunter was indicted in January 2014 and accused of backdating court documents to prevent prosecutors from appealing her rulings, misusing a court credit card to pay for legal filings in lawsuits against her, and illegally helping her brother by giving him documents related to his upcoming disciplinary hearing and arranging for him to get extra work hours.
On the next day, Hunter sent an email to the juvenile court staff saying the county “was not ready for its first African-American Democrat judge.” She added: "I understand many of the changes I made or was in the process of making were not always welcome.
"Change is difficult for most people, especially after 110 years.”
But the trial judge, Norbert Nadel, insisted the trial was fair – if "extraordinary."
"Any problem that could happen sort of happened in this case," Nadel said.
In October, 2014, the five-week trial ended with the jury convicting Hunter on one count while failing to reach a verdict on the other eight. The jury found her guilty on one count of unlawful interest in a public contract - for helping her brother, a county employee, in a disciplinary hearing. Hunter's brother testified that the judge gave him court documents before his hearing.
"It was a confidential juvenile file that shouldn't have been turned over," Nadel said. "It was a breach of ethics and a breach of the law. It was a violation of the law for a public official."
Hunter's attorney tried to argue that the documents were public record, but the attorney for Hunter's brother gave damning testimony when she said she refused to take many of the documents Tracie Hunter provided because she thought it would be unethical.
Nadel said the jury was not biased, even though in the two weeks after the verdict the three blacks on the jury tried to retract their guilty votes and said they felt pressured to vote guilty.
"It was a cross section of people," Nadel said. "There were African Americans on the jury. There were men. There were women. ... Tracie Hunter got a fair trial by her peers … It was done in the open. The jury reached a unanimous decision on one count."
It was Nadel, since retired, who sentenced Hunter to jail after 18 character witnesses pleaded for three hours at her sentencing to spare her time.
"The evidence did show that there were serious ethical violations, which include, among other things, nepotism, improper judicial temperament, tardiness in making decisions and denying public access to the court," Nadel said in December, 2014.
"Also ... the evidence showed that the criminal conduct of Tracie Hunter has dealt a very serious blow to public confidence in our judicial system."
In August 2015, Hunter filed a federal lawsuit claiming county leaders and attorneys violated her civil rights. Defendants included Prosecutor Joe Deters, Juvenile Court Judge John Williams, former juvenile court administrator and current Municipal Court Judge Curt Kissinger, Nadel, Court of Appeals judges, and a list of court administrators and attorneys.
"This woman needs professional help," Deters said in response to the suit.
A judge has set a potential March date for a review of the appellate court's decision.