Judge’s actions may undo DeKalb corruption convictions

After sitting in court for 13 days and listening to 41 witnesses, jurors were convinced that a once married couple had manipulated DeKalb County school construction contracts for personal gain.

The jury convicted DeKalb schools construction chief Pat Reid and her architect ex-husband, Tony Pope, sending them to prison and seemingly bringing an end to their case.

Then Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker stepped in.

In a rare legal move, Becker overturned the jury’s verdict last week and ordered Pope and Reid’s release from prison, putting her judicial power on display and inviting scrutiny of her decision.

While Becker’s action was short-lived — the Georgia Court of Appeals put her ruling on hold — the guilty verdicts are now in doubt.

And that left DeKalb County prosecutors, still frustrated from last month’s hung jury in the trial of DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, up in arms that their victory against alleged government wrongdoers could turn into a defeat.

Lawyers and former judges said it’s unusual for a judge to override a jury after it has rendered a verdict, especially when there wasn’t a clear legal mistake or new evidence presented.

“It’s very, very rare,” said Michael Clark, who was a superior court judge in Gwinnett County for 21 years before going into private practice earlier this year. “In special circumstances, the judge can sit as the 13th juror. And, if the judge feels the evidence is insufficient, she can set aside the conviction.”

Usually, juries decide the facts of a case, and the judge decides on the law.

“Most defense lawyers can count on one finger the number of times they’ve had a motion for a new trial granted based on these circumstances,” said Mike Martin, a Fayetteville defense attorney. “Judges are extremely reluctant to overturn a jury’s decision.”

Becker, a no-nonsense judge who seldom changes her mind, ordered a new trial for Reid and Pope because she didn’t believe the testimony of a key witness against them, former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis.

Lewis — who, as superintendent, was Reid’s boss — faced the possibility of up to 65 years in prison if convicted, but that was before he worked out a deal with prosecutors to testify against Reid and Pope. In exchange for his guilty plea and cooperation, prosecutors agreed to a sentence of 12 months of probation with no time behind bars.

Though Becker had tentatively agreed to the plea bargain before the trial, during sentencing she said she thought his testimony was dishonest, and she sentenced him to a year in jail for the misdemeanor charge of obstruction.

Lewis took his case to the Georgia Court of Appeals, arguing that he had fulfilled the terms of the agreement. His jail sentence was overturned by the Georgia Court of Appeals on Oct. 23. Becker reversed the convictions of Reid and Pope a few days later.

Prosecutors have accused Becker of trying to set free Reid and Pope out of retaliation against the Court of Appeals for invalidating her decision to jail Lewis. The Georgia Court of Appeals has intervened four times in the case, and each of those times it has ruled against Becker. The judge rejected prosecutors’ claims.

“The problem for the average citizen is they aren’t sure who to believe,” said Christine Koehler, a Lawrenceville defense attorney. “They aren’t sure they can trust any part of our system.”

Ashleigh Merchant, a Marietta defense and appellate attorney, also thinks that it makes the public wary.

“It undermines the entire criminal justice system,” said Merchant. “Judge Becker doesn’t appear to want to do what the (Court of Appeals) ruled and so now we have a situation where she is trying to work around the COA’s order.”

But William Hill, a former Fulton County superior court judge, said it’s hard to tell whether Becker acted appropriately.

“She’s the jurist who sat there, saw the witnesses, heard the witnesses,” said Hill, who handles commercial and complex litigation in private practice. “Her job is a difficult job, and sometimes I think people lack an appreciation for how heavy that responsibility is.”

Becker’s conduct is subject to review by Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees judges’ conduct. The commission’s chairman, Lester Tate, declined to comment.

Becker said she has acted appropriately.

“I did my job,” she told Channel 2 Action News.

Lawyers for Reid and Pope agreed.

“We’re certainly glad the court realized that they deserve a new trial because the state’s star witness perjured himself,” said Pope’s attorney, J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb district attorney.

The crux of prosecutors’ case was that Reid and Pope, who were married at the time, worked together to profit from construction projects at Columbia High School and the McNair Cluster Elementary School, with Pope receiving $1.4 million more than he should have.

Witnesses testified during the trial that Reid sent Pope work by adding to his contract for Columbia High and by helping a contractor win another project so he could use Pope as an architect behind the scenes.

Reid was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Pope was sentenced to eight years. They could get out on parole after having served at least 80 percent of their time. They’ve served 10 months of their sentence so far.

Meanwhile, Lewis has been free on bond while his appeal is pending.

“I continue to stand by the truthfulness of my testimony,” Lewis told Channel 2. “We look forward to getting this matter behind us as quickly as possible.

At least one other Georgia judge has recently reversed a guilty verdict and ordered a new trial.

Court of Appeals Judge Christopher McFadden, who presided over a Fayette County rape case to get trial experience, in February threw out the convictions of a man a jury had found guilty of raping and sodomizing a 24-year-old woman with Down syndrome.

McFadden’s order said woman didn’t behave like a sexual assault victim, and the defendant hadn’t behaved like a sexual predator. Fayette District Attorney Scott Ballard has said the Judicial Qualifications Commission is investigating the matter.

Prosecutors in DeKalb are scrambling to salvage their convictions of Reid and Pope.

The Court of Appeals has ordered each side to submit written arguments by the end of the day Thursday.

As in last month’s mistrial in the Ellis proceedings, the case is left unresolved. Prosecutors haven’t said whether they’ll seek a retrial.

“I’d like to have some resolution,” said Harriet Chaney, who lives near Stone Mountain and is involved with several community groups. “It hangs over all of us as DeKalb County residents because our elected officials aren’t governing like they should be.”

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