Cobb judge too chummy with prosecutors, defense attorneys claim

A Cobb County Superior Court judge is too friendly with prosecutors, put inappropriate pressure on a jury in a criminal case and is the subject of multiple ethics complaints, according to attorneys who have appeared before him.

Judge Reuben Green was also named as a defendant on Thursday in a lawsuit that seeks access to audio recordings of what’s transpired in the judge’s courtroom. That suit says Green telephoned the county attorney and then yelled at her after the sheriff’s office had previously released a number of recordings of proceedings in his courtroom.

Green, who won re-election by a comfortable margin in last month’s primary, has declined by email to respond to the complaints against him, saying it is improper for him to discuss the allegations.

Most, though not all, of the allegations stem from motions filed by defense attorneys who have watched and listened to conversations Green had with prosecutors in his courtroom that were captured by a security system operated by the Cobb Sheriff’s Office. Neither the defendant nor the defense attorney was present for those conversations.

In January, for example, Green told prosecutors he hoped jurors hearing an upcoming armed robbery case would “do the right thing.” A few weeks later, when talking to prosecutors about defendant Borja Francisco Escobar, who faced drug-related charges, Green began referring to Escobar as “Pablo,” apparently in reference to the notorious Colombian drug lord. Green then indicated he would give Escobar a 25-year sentence, even though Escobar had yet to stand trial.

Motions seeking to remove Green from at least a half dozen cases have already resulted in an extraordinary ruling. Last month, Chief Judge Stephen Schuster disqualified the entire Cobb bench from the matter, citing the “personal nature” of the accusations and the need to “safeguard against any perception of partiality or bias.” A judge from outside the county will now hear those motions.

Earlier this year, the sheriff’s office released audio and video recordings from Green’s courtroom under the Open Records Act. But the county attorney’s office recently changed that policy. It said the video recordings will continue to be available to the public, but the audio recordings are now considered to be a “court record.”

The county allowed one exception: anyone who wants to listen to the audio can do so only after signing a “confidentiality” agreement. Last month, Atlanta criminal defense attorney Leigh Ann Webster filed suit against the county, seeking unfettered access to audio recordings of eight days of hearings in Green’s courtroom in February.

That lawsuit, which was amended Thursday, alleges that sometime last month, after the sheriff’s office released both audio and video recordings from Green’s courtroom, the judge called County Attorney Deborah Dance. “During that conversation, Green yelled at Dance and explained that he was angry she had allowed the recording to be released without his consultation,” the suit said.

The suit further alleges that Green then “intentionally used his position as a sitting Superior Court judge” to force the county to change the sheriff’s office’s policy over the audio recordings and prevent Webster from obtaining copies of them.

“This smacks of politics and shows that all the agencies in Cobb County will do whatever Judge Green tells them to do,” said Marietta lawyer John Merchant, who with his wife Ashleigh represents Webster.

Neither Green nor Dance returned emails seeking comment about the complaint filed Thursday.

Merchant had emailed a letter to Green on May 26 that asked the judge to authorize the release of the audio recordings requested by Webster. Last week, Green told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the matter involving the recordings had not been properly brought before him to decide.

“As it stands now, I cannot decide whether any court records, these recordings included, are released in response to an open records request directed to the court, and for anyone to suggest otherwise is misleading,” Green wrote in an email message.

Green, a former state and federal prosecutor, was appointed to the bench in 2010 by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. On May 24, Green won re-election with 55.5 percent of the vote.

Even though he won another term, Green now faces a number of ethics complaints before the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which oversees judicial conduct, according to lawyers familiar with the filings.

In an email to the AJC, Green said he could not comment on the specific allegations. During his first year on the bench, he said, the state Supreme Court reversed one of his cases and told him he could not respond to allegations in a disqualification motion no matter how false or defamatory the allegations might be.

“I try to learn from each decision and not make the same mistake again,” Green wrote. “So you will understand when I say the law does not allow me to comment on the specifics of pending legal matters. Asking me to do so is asking me to (do) something that is legally improper.”

Court motions contend Green has already done a number of things on the bench that were legally improper.

A motion filed by Marietta lawyer Bryan Lumpkin refers to comments Green made during a calendar hearing on Jan. 14. Talking with Cobb prosecutors, Green said, talking about an upcoming case, “Hopefully this jury does the right thing. Had some unusual cases lately. Unusual juries.”

In his motion, Lumpkin said his reading of the conversation leads him to believe that one of the cases involving “unusual juries” included his client, David Reid, who was tried for murder in November 2015. Reid was found not guilty of the murder charge but convicted of aggravated offense and other charges.

Lumpkin, who is filing a motion for new trial on Reid’s behalf, wrote he was concerned whether Green could be impartial in hearing that motion if he believed the jury’s verdict was not “the right thing.”

Similarly, Marietta lawyer Ashleigh Merchant has filed a motion asking that Green be disqualified from presiding over the case against Tomdrick Cromer. Cromer was the armed robbery defendant Green was referring to when he said he hoped the jury would do the right thing. (Cromer was indeed later convicted at trial and sentenced by Green to life in prison without parole.)

Webster, the Atlanta lawyer who filed suit over the courthouse recordings, is also asking that Green be disqualified from presiding over the case involving her client, Tadarius Williams. In 2014, Williams was convicted of aggravated battery and aggravated assault; Green sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

According to court records, Williams’ jury sent Green a message after it had been deliberating about five hours, saying it “hopelessly deadlocked.” Green told the prosecution and defense he was going to have the jurors continue to deliberate and he ultimately sent them home for the night. The jury returned to court the next morning and found Williams guilty after deliberating another 45 minutes.

Webster’s motion, citing information supplied by an unidentified juror in Williams’ case, said Green had visited the jury room before jurors left after their first day of deliberations. The judge told jurors he would not accept a deadlocked decision, the motion said, adding that neither prosecutors nor Williams’ lawyers were present at that time.

Mercer University law school professor Jim Fleissner, who specializes in criminal law and procedure, said if that actually happened, it will “unquestionably” result in a new trial for Williams.

“It would be very serious, in my opinion, for a judge, outside the presence of the parties, to contact the jury and communicate in a way in which he was trying to influence their decision,” Fleissner said. “I don’t think anyone would describe that as appropriate judicial conduct.”