Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christopher McFadden got his wish to sit as a trial judge so he could see what it was like in the trenches.
But his trial run has had an extraordinary outcome: After a Fayette County jury found a man guilty of raping a mentally disabled woman and after McFadden sentenced him to 25 years, McFadden then reversed the verdict and called for a new trial. McFadden said he had doubts about the verdict, including his impression that the woman didn’t act like a victim and that her alleged assailant didn’t act like a rapist.
The almost-unprecedented chain of events has left Fayette prosecutors reeling and angry. They want McFadden off the case and are now appealing his decision this month to preside over the new trial to the same appeals court McFadden sits on.
Fayette District Attorney Scott Ballard said he received the news of McFadden’s decision to grant William Jeffrey Dumas a new trial with “disgust.”
“I had to go visit the Down syndrome woman who was the victim of the rape and tell her that even though a jury had convicted her assailant of the crime, the judge was giving the guy a new trial,” Ballard said. “Her parents were, as you can image, outraged. … I just hope we can get some justice.”
The woman broke down and sobbed when she first heard the news, Ballard said. “She then composed herself, looked up and said she was ready to go through it again.”
In a statement issued Wednesday, McFadden said judicial ethics forbid him from commenting about a case that is pending before him.
“I cannot go beyond my written orders,” McFadden said. “The Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits me from commenting further.”
Ballard said it appeared as if this was the first trial McFadden ever presided over. After the first 12 jurors were qualified to serve, McFadden incorrectly thought jury selection was over and did not know at least another two dozen people needed to be questioned to fill out the pool, Ballard said.
Dumas’ lawyer, Ricky Morris, said he was astonished McFadden granted the request for a new trial. “I about coughed and fell out of my chair,” he said. “I’ve never had it happen.”
But Morris said he suspected McFadden wanted to right a wrong he had witnessed during the trial.
“He actually has a duty to sit as a 13th juror in many cases,” Morris said. “It took a lot of guts to do what that man did. … I don’t think he agreed with the verdict. I think he was shocked at it.”
Atlanta defense attorney Page Pate said such a decision is extremely rare. Normally, it’s decided on a legal issue.
“I’ve only had one granted in 20 years,” Pate said. “Most judges respect the jury’s opinion.”
According to testimony at the October 2012 trial, the woman was being cared for at the home of Christine Prince and Robert Barton because her mother and step-father were working in Chattanooga. On the night of Oct. 18, 2010, Dumas, who was intoxicated, came over to visit.
After Barton went to sleep and while Prince was on the porch smoking, a crash could be heard from inside the house, Prince testified. But both the woman and Dumas said Dumas had tripped over a chair.
Sometime after midnight, after Dumas had passed out on the couch, Prince put the woman to bed in a basement bedroom. The next morning, Dumas was seen heading downstairs to take a shower in the basement bathroom, according to testimony. He later left with Barton and to go to work.
That afternoon, the woman made her first complaint of an assault, telling Prince that Dumas had tried to pull her panties down. When Prince asked her what she meant, the woman said she was only kidding, Prince testified.
Prince confronted Dumas, who denied touching the woman and left. Prince then called the woman’s mother, who drove with her husband from Chattanooga. Later, the woman told her mother that Dumas was raping her on a chair when Prince heard the crash inside the house, that he molested her on another occasion and that he raped her in the morning after he went downstairs to shower.
Dumas’ semen was found on the sheets on the basement bed on which the woman had been sleeping. A doctor who examined the woman made findings that were consistent that she had recently been forcibly raped.
In his ruling, issued last month, McFadden said the evidence presented to the jury was sufficient to sustain Dumas’ convictions of rape and aggravated sodomy. But the evidence also left him in doubt, McFadden added.
The woman testified that, in a 12-hour period, Dumas sexually assaulted her three times and did so in a modest-sized house with two adults charged with protecting her, McFadden wrote. The alleged attacks were also interspersed with periods when she interacted with her protectors and had ample time to ask for help.
At no time during her initial complaint about the alleged assault did the woman “behave like a victim,” McFadden wrote. “Nor did Mr. Dumas behave like someone who had recently perpetrated a series of violent crimes against her. … Neither of them showed any fear, guilt or inclination to retreat to a place of safety.”
District Attorney Brian Rickman of the Mountain Judicial Circuit, who read the ruling, expressed incredulity that McFadden could make such findings.
“To say someone didn’t behave like a victim just jumps out at me,” Rickman said. “I’ve never seen a pattern of behavior for a victim of sexual assault, even if they don’t have Down syndrome. There is no standard set of behaviors. … There is not always an immediate outcry. Most sexual assaults are underreported.”
It is possible that Ballard’s appeal to have McFadden removed from the case could result in all of the state Court of Appeals judges having to recuse themselves because the case involves a decision by one of their colleagues.
“How awkward is that?” Ballard asked. “I don’t know what the dynamics of that will be.”
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