Codefendants Mark Thomason, right, and Russell Stookey, who is Thomason’s lawyer, at the Gilmer County courthouse Monday. They won a ruling of nolle prosequi, which means in effect that the district attorney does not intend to pursue the case further. (Rhonda Cook, rcook@ajc.com)

Charges dropped against North Georgia publisher and his lawyer

The criminal charges against a Blue Ridge weekly newspaper publisher and his attorney, charges based on their attempts to access public records, were dropped Monday, putting to rest a case that riled media nationwide and stunned the legal community.

Judge Richard Winegarden, a retired Gwinnett Superior Court judge brought in to hear the case, conceded that it was unusual to call a hearing on a prosecutor’s motion to dismiss charges. But he recited a lengthy list of other events in the criminal case against Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and Hiawassee attorney Russell Stookey that also made it extraordinary.

Thomason and Stookey were arrested and jailed overnight on June 24 after a Pickens County grand jury indicted them. Thomason was charged with making a false statement in a request for copies of checks written on judges’ offices’ operating accounts that were “cashed illegally.” Thomason and Stookey were both indicted on felony charges of identity theft and attempted identity theft because they secured subpoenas for copies of the checks written on government accounts to be used as evidence in a then-pending civil case.

Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who presides in the three-county Appalachian Judicial Circuit, had urged District Attorney Alison Sosebee to see the indictment. Weaver, who was in control of one of those accounts, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she pushed for the case because “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned.”

In setting bond for Thomason, a local magistrate ordered him to check in each day to see whether the county wanted to take a drug test. Thomason was tested five times in a little more than a week.

A week later, Weaver, as the victim in the case, asked Sosebee to drop the felony charges.

Weaver was not in court Monday and neither was Sosebee, who was out of state, according to an assistant prosecutor.

Meanwhile, several complaints against Weaver have been filed with the Judicial Qualifications Commission. Weaver is chair of the JQC.

Winegarden started the hearing in a Pickens County courtroom by first asking each reporter and photographer lining the walls to announce their names and why they were at the hearing. The reporters said they wanted to take notes and some also planned to record the proceedings.

Then Winegarden responded to criticism he read in news accounts and calls he received from a media organization, accusing him of sitting on the prosecutor’s motion to abandon the case.

In great detail, the judge recounted day-by-day dental appointments, medical tests and other hearings he presided over in the period between being assigned to the case on June 29, receiving the prosecutor’s motion to dismiss the indictment and finding a place on his calendar to hold a hearing. He noted that such motions are required to be heard in “open court.”

“It’s important to address my reasons for doing what I’ve done,” explained Winegarden, who came to the case after all the judges in the circuit recused themselves from the Thomason-Stookey case.

The judge then took a deep dive into the minutiae of the case.

He said no defense attorneys had filed a notice that they were representing either of the two men until just before the hearing, when Stookey’s lawyer filed paperwork. Winegarden said the district attorney has been out of town and others in her office did not return his phone calls for days.

“There’s still no entry of (legal) representation,” Winegarden said. “I had no lawyers to talk to and the district attorney was out of town… in a case that was barely two weeks old.”

The judge read from news stories about the case and noted that, that was how he learned what was happening in it.

It was in those articles that he discovered that Stookey did not wanted his case dropped, that he wanted to go to trial in hopes of an acquittal.

“I’m seeing one defendant wants a trial and the lawyer representing the other says, ‘Why hasn’t he signed the order?’” Winegarden said.

And at the same time, Winegarden was getting phone calls because the Society of Professional Journalists had sent out an emailing urging people to ask the judge to sign the order to end the case.

“I’m not like a sitting judge who has staff who can screen your calls,” Winegarden said. “It’s never appropriate to call a judge and try to encourage them to do something.”

Ashleigh Merchant, who represents Thomason, said she agreed with Sosebee’s decision to drop the case. Lawyer Fletcher Griffin, however, said Stookey insisted on a trial because he wanted his reputation repaired and didn’t want to live under the threat that the prosecutor could revive the case.

“There’s a lot of crime,” Winegarden said. “And I suspect the District Attorney’s Office is busy. And I suspect the court is busy despite Mr. Stookey’s desire to have his day in court….. It seems to me the resources of the DA are better used prosecuting others.

“In spite of the defendant’s objections, I’m going to (dismiss),” he said.

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