Are they out of order? DA, judge feuding in Fulton

A long-simmering dispute between Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob has become so bitter, it’s ensnared others in its wake.

The dust-up has erupted into a bar complaint and a contempt finding against a sex-crimes prosecutor, and an ethics investigation of Shoob.

Both the DA and the judge have retained high-profile lawyers. And both those lawyers agree that Shoob's disdain for mandatory-minimum prison sentences is at the heart of the controversy.

"The friction is caused by the minimum mandatories," said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who is representing Shoob. "And that friction, plus the fact there's a disagreement between the district attorney and the judge over the actions of an assistant DA, has led to dueling complaints."

Both Barnes and Ken Hodges, a former Albany district attorney who is representing Howard’s office, said they are trying to find a resolution that allows their strong-minded clients to settle their differences.

Hodges even said he shares Shoob's views about mandatory sentences — he doesn't like them either because they take away a judge's discretion. "But her fight about that is with the Legislature, not the DA's office, particularly not with the … assistant district attorneys in her courtroom," he said.

From office mates to adversaries

Shoob, the daughter of longtime federal judge Marvin Shoob, once shared an office with Howard decades ago when they served together as assistant district attorneys.

But now she’s the target of a judicial ethics investigation requested by Howard, who also recently filed a flurry of emergency court motions seeking to prevent Shoob from taking action in a number of criminal cases.

Their feud flared up this past March, when Shoob expressed frustration with a case against a man charged with using an air gun to commit an armed robbery.

Because the defendant, Jarvis Taylor, had three prior felony convictions, Howard charged him under Georgia’s harsh recidivist law. This meant if Taylor were convicted of armed robbery, Shoob had to impose a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Court records show that Shoob clearly did not think Taylor warranted such serious punishment. During the trial, she encouraged prosecutors to work out a plea deal so the mandatory sentence wouldn’t have to come into play.

When that failed, the judge took the highly unusual step of letting the jury know what was going on.

‘You don’t want to tell the jury’

When Shoob gave jurors her instructions before they began deliberations, she told them if they convicted Taylor of armed robbery, she would be “required by law to sentence this defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”

Fulton prosecutor Vincent Faucette objected, but Shoob overruled him. Later, he asked that Taylor be given a new trial because the jury should only be concerned with guilt or innocence, not punishment.

His request drew a strong rebuke from Shoob.

“As soon as this case is over, if you get a conviction on armed robbery, your office will issue a proud press release and it will tell the entire state that you won … and the defendant is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole,” she said. “You will announce that to the world. But you don’t want to tell the jury, the ones who are having to decide this case. You don’t want them to know that.”

Howard then filed an emergency motion to the Georgia Court of Appeals, asking it to halt the jury’s deliberations. But the court refused to step in.

When the jury finally returned its verdict, it convicted Taylor, but not of armed robbery. Instead, it settled on the lesser charge of robbery. Shoob then sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

Brouhaha bruises two more

In late May, Shoob became frustrated again, this time with sex-crimes prosecutor Irina Khasin, who was trying a case in her courtroom.

During the trial, Shoob told jurors to leave the courtroom after a District Attorney’s Office investigator testified she had talked to the defendant while trying to track down a witness. Shoob then declared a mistrial on the grounds that investigators should not talk to defendants who are represented by an attorney.

But Shoob apparently blamed Khasin for the investigator’s transgression.

Less than two weeks later, Shoob disclosed in a court order that she had filed a disciplinary complaint against Khasin with the State Bar of Georgia. For that reason, Shoob said, she would no longer consider legal matters involving Khasin, who worked for the Crimes Against Women and Children Unit.

Shoob said she would set trials for Khasin’s cases once Howard assigned a new attorney to take them over. She also barred Khasin from entering her courtroom.

Between a rock and a court case

Howard responded in court motions by saying Shoob could not dictate who was going to prosecute sex-crimes cases, and he let Khasin keep her cases. So when those cases were called to trial in Shoob’s courtroom, Khasin appeared on Aug. 28, whereupon Shoob reminded her she’d been ordered to stay away

When Khasin showed up in Shoob’s courtroom again on Aug. 31, Shoob had had enough. She found Khasin in contempt of court and fined her $200.

Khasin, a former Atlanta Falcons cheerleader, has yet to lose a case at the Fulton DA’s office, Hodges said.

“By all accounts, Irina is a very good, very professional and very capable young prosecutor,” he said. “She believes strongly and I believe strongly the evidence shows that she handled cases in front of Judge Shoob in an appropriate way.”

Addressing the contempt of court finding, Hodges said Khasin had been placed in an untenable situation because if she didn’t show up, Shoob could have dismissed her cases.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the state Court of Appeals once again declined to enter the fray. Howard had filed another emergency motion, this time asking the court to order Shoob to stop calling Khasin’s cases to trial in her courtroom. In one of Khasin’s sex-crimes cases, the motion said, Shoob took a guilty plea from one defendant without notifying the DA’s Office the plea was about to be accepted. But the appeals court denied the motion.