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AND WHY IS HE HEARING IT?
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 22, 2014) — On Monday, June 23, a trial is scheduled in the case of State of Tennessee v. Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret.) which accuses Fitzpatrick of three felonies and one misdemeanor charge.
The allegations arose on March 18 of this year when Fitzpatrick attempted to submit evidence of criminality on the part of judges, McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy, prosecutors in Tennessee’s Tenth Judicial District, and the grand jury foreman, among others.
Judges serving the district rotate among the four county courthouses in McMinn, Monroe, Polk and Bradley Counties, which comprise the district. In 1984, a set of laws was passed by the legislature ordering that county criminal courts be abandoned and that district criminal courts be formed to allow for “growth” and a larger jury pool, but the laws were never implemented.
Former grand jury foreman Jeff Cunningham accused Fitzpatrick of stalking, harassment, aggravated perjury and extortion as indicated in a McMinn County grand jury presentment dated March 18. However, in a hearing on June 16 to determine whether or not the Tenth Judicial District should prosecute the case, Cunningham denied that he was Fitzpatrick’s accuser, leaving open the question of who the accuser is.
Cunningham told the court under oath that Fitzpatrick did not “threaten” him, although he first claimed that Fitzpatrick committed “retaliation against a juror” by naming him in the several criminal complaints Fitzpatrick had brought to the grand jury over a period of months. Cunningham told Fitzpatrick’s attorney, Van Irion, that he is the victim of Fitzpatrick’s actions.
The Tennessee attorney general contended in a court brief last fall that the grand jury foreman “is not a juror.” In Monday’s hearing, Blackwood interjected (22:49) that if Cunningham were serving “illegally [as] a grand juror,” “that is not a crime in the state of Tennessee.”
During the hearing, the prosecution claimed that there was “no exculpatory evidence” to present in the case.
Article 1, Section 9 of the Tennessee constitution states of a defendant’s rights:
As the attorney general affirmed, judges personally select grand jury foremen in the state of Tennessee. Appointing orders from various counties, including all within the Tenth Judicial District for the past 34 years show that many foremen were appointed and reappointed for years, if not decades.
State law, Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, and the District Attorneys General Conference all indicate that the grand jury is to consist of 13 individuals selected randomly from the community, one of whom becomes the foreperson.
In December 2009, upon his submission of a petition to the Monroe County grand jury, Fitzpatrick discovered that grand jury foreman Gary Pettway had been serving for at least two decades. Two years later, the court clerk admitted in writing that Pettway had never officially been appointed, and there was no evidence that he had ever been sworn in. Further, Pettway ultimately was found to have worked as foreman for 28 consecutive years.
In McNairy County, where Blackwood had presided before his official retirement ten years ago, the court clerk responded to a recent open records request for grand jury foreman appointing orders by stating that “at this time we are unable to locate any orders due [sic] the record keeping of the former clerks who served under Judge Blackwood. The records during the tenure you are asking for were poorly kept, and were not logistically placed in the minutes’ records as they properly should have been.”
Blackwood has presided over previous cases involving Fitzpatrick, having knowingly allowed a tainted grand jury to stand. Blackwood has stated openly that “the grand jury foreman is no different than any other member of the grand jury,” although his actions belie that statement.
On March 4 of this year, Judge Amy Reedy, who Fitzpatrick accused of hand-picking grand jurors and trial jurors in December 2011, appointed a new grand jury foreman, Larry Wallace, into the McMinn County grand jury after Cunningham resigned. On March 18, Reedy then replaced Wallace with Thomas Balkom just minutes before Fitzpatrick was arrested while reading a book outside of the court clerk’s office.
Wallace and Cunningham both serve on the board of Athens Federal Community Bank.
In 2010, Reedy had recused herself from hearing any cases involving Fitzpatrick.
When Balkom was selected as foreman, Reedy had specified case number “14-CR-69” on the appointing order, as if charges had already been filed.
Balkom signed the grand jury presentment along with former District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb, who was expected to remain in his position until the end of August but abruptly resigned on June 6, making national headlines.
In late October 2010, Blackwood issued a bench warrant against Fitzpatrick for “failing to appear” at a hearing concerning his attorney of record about which Fitzpatrick had not been notified. Four Monroe County sheriff’s deputies broke down his door, tasered Fitzpatrick repeatedly, ripped his left ear, and injured his ribs and right shoulder in an ambush-style attack, then handcuffed him tightly and took him to the Monroe County jail, where he stayed until his trial on December 1 after Blackwood denied him bond.
In a November pre-trial hearing, Blackwood told Fitzpatrick that he did not need an attorney and could defend himself. He did the same to Rocky Joe Houston earlier that year when he was reported to have “excused Rocky’s attorney Lindsey Lander and ordered Houston to represent himself” in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the Bill of Rights and Article 1, Section 9 of the Tennessee constitution. When Houston said that he was placed at a disadvantage, Blackwood said, “You may be at a disadvantage. That’s why you’ve got 30 minutes to prepare.”
When Fitzpatrick asked Blackwood to convene a new, unbiased grand jury to evaluate the evidence against him, Blackwood refused. On December 1 of that year, when Fitzpatrick questioned the jurors as to whether or not they had served on a jury within the last 24 months, one of them said he had, and Blackwood dismissed him in keeping with TCA 22-2-314.
In 2011, Blackwood refused to recuse himself from hearing a case being retried after “Blackwood and prosecutors ended up raising their voices at each other.” The Tennessee attorney general asked an appellate court to rule on Blackwood’s impartiality, which ultimately ordered Blackwood to step down.
Blackwood denied Fitzpatrick’s petition for a restraining order against Cunningham on March 17 without holding a hearing.
During the hearing last week, two of the grand jurors who voted to indict Fitzpatrick on March 18 said that they “did not remember” what occurred in the grand jury room on the day in question. One testified that she had had a series of strokes since that time which have impaired her memory.
In addition to being a Board member, Cunningham is President and CEO of Athens Federal Community Bank. In a subpoena issued by Fitzpatrick’s defense attorney, Van Irion, Cunningham was asked to produce any and all documentation in his possession containing the name “Walter Fitzpatrick.” On June 13, an attorney representing the bank, Michael Jenne, filed a motion asking that the subpoena be quashed because of the demands he alleged it made on the bank. To date, Blackwood has not issued a ruling on the motion to the public’s knowledge.
During last Monday’s hearing, Irion told Blackwood that there existed no evidence to support at least two of the charges and requested that they be dropped in the interest of saving the court’s time, a request Blackwood ultimately denied.