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“THE GRAND JURY IS WHAT MAKES US A CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLIC”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Feb. 9, 2015) — On Thursday, a 25-page appeal was filed with the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, Eastern Division, on behalf of CDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret.), who was convicted last June of “aggravated perjury” and “extortion” after he brought a number of petitions to the McMinn County grand jury alleging corruption on the part of the grand jury foreman, court clerks, judges, prosecutors and the McMinn County Sheriff’s Department.
In 2009, while living in nearby Monroe County, TN, Fitzpatrick discovered that grand juries in Tennessee are populated with 12 individuals ostensibly selected according to state code plus a foreman who is hand-selected by the criminal court judge from among his or her circle of associates. The practice of the judge personally picking the foreman from outside of the mandated empaneling process has been ongoing for at least three decades in the state, although it has likely occurred for much longer.
As The Post & Email has reported over more than five years, Tennessee courts are rife with fraud, abuse, deprivation of civil and constitutional rights, and undue influence on jurors and grand jurors. Judges commandeer the outcome of grand jury deliberations first by installing the foreman “from wherever they choose” and at times, hand-selecting all of the grand jury members.
Charges are often advanced without an accuser, and arrests are ordered without the required signatures or with forged charging documents. Jurors declared ineligible by state law have been allowed by judges to continue serving.
Last year, The Post & Email obtained from Fitzpatrick appointing orders from all four counties in the Tenth Judicial District, obtained through Open Records requests over several years. The orders show that criminal court judges often appoint the same person as foreman for successive years or even decades, and in some cases, no appointing orders exist.
While incarcerated in the Monroe County jail, Fitzpatrick discovered that a prisoners-for-profit operation has been operating through local sheriffs’ departments. Deputies often arrest citizens without evidence of a crime having been committed, after which the grand jury issues an indictment. Fitzpatrick has observed trials in which defendants were railroaded into a conviction, sometimes to life in prison, without the proper forensics having been carried out.
Then-criminal court judge Amy Armstrong Reedy’s stated goal was to have citizens of the district serve a million man-hours as a result of her judgeship. After serving a partial term by appointment and a full eight-year term by action of the voters, Reedy was not retained by the electorate last August. The Post & Email does not know if her replacement, Sandra Donaghy, appointed her own foreman from outside of the legal empaneling process, although we did relate our findings on the composition of the Tenth Judicial District’s grand juries during the primary season.
While jailed, Fitzpatrick also observed then-Monroe County grand jury foreman Gary Pettway attempting to coerce a confession from an inmate.
In the case of George Raudenbush, Judge Carroll Lee Ross denied him his constitutional right to defense counsel. Raudenbush spent nearly two and one-half years in state prison before his case was reversed on appeal based on the violation, after which Ross promptly announced his retirement.
Fitzpatrick’s latest case arose after he attempted to petition the McMinn County grand jury in January of last year to review allegations of wrongdoing on the part of court personnel, the Tenth Judicial District’s prosecutor’s office, court clerks and law enforcement. State law allows any Tennessee citizen to petition the grand jury with evidence or sincere belief that a crime has been committed.
Then-grand jury foreman Jeffrey Cunningham refused to recuse himself from the three-person panel conducting an initial review of Fitzpatrick’s complaints despite the fact that state law requires it in the event that a grand juror is named in a criminal complaint, a fact Fitzpatrick’s defense attorney, Van Irion, raised in the appellate brief filed on Thursday.
In January 2014, Fitzpatrick was ordered removed from the courthouse by Cunningham after bringing his petition to the grand jury. Sheriff’s deputies then escorted Fitzpatrick to his car, then did the same with the grand jurors with the intent that they would not interact with Fitzpatrick. Cunningham would not allow the grand jury to review any of Fitzpatrick’s petitions.
In February, Cunningham told Fitzpatrick he would have him arrested if he returned with another petition for the grand jury.
On March 18, 2014, Fitzpatrick returned to the McMinn County courthouse with a grand jury petition and was arrested while reading a book awaiting a disposition on his petition. Indicted on three felonies and one misdemeanor by the very grand jury to which he had wished to testify about local government corruption, Fitzpatrick was jailed and arraigned, then released on bond several days later.
Unbeknownst to Fitzpatrick, on March 18, Cunningham was no longer the grand jury foreman. Cunningham had resigned earlier that month, and Reedy had hand-picked 40-year law enforcer Larry Wallace, who allegedly protected a relative of Al Gore from prosecution when he served as head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). Just before Fitzpatrick was arrested, however, Reedy appointed one of the grand jurors, Thomas Balkom, to serve as foreman specifically for Fitzpatrick, for which a case number had been assigned prior to his arrest. Since grand jury deliberations occur in private, it is unknown what was discussed during the minutes-long indictment process.
Wallace and Cunningham both serve on the Board of Directors of the Athens Federal Community Bank, of which Cunningham is also the CEO. Cunningham is also a licensed attorney in Tennessee.
During a pre-trial hearing on June 16, Cunningham admitted that he never filed a criminal complaint against Fitzpatrick and that Fitzpatrick appeared to believe that which he had written in his petitions to the grand jury.
Irion argued during the trial that Fitzpatrick’s attempts to gain an audience in front of the grand jury were constitutionally-protected under the First Amendment. At the end of the first day of the trial, presiding Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, who was familiar with Fitzpatrick, discarded a charge of “stalking.” The next day, following closing arguments, the jury acquitted Fitzpatrick on the charge of “harassment” but convicted him of “aggravated perjury” and “extortion.”
On August 19, Blackwood sentenced Fitzpatrick to three years in prison after a lengthy soliloquy during which he decried people “demanding their constitutional rights.”
After the sentence was read, during which Blackwood called Fitzpatrick “a moral coward,” Fitzpatrick was immediately incarcerated in the McMinn County jail, then sent to the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex (BCCX) after approximately five days. In early December, Fitzpatrick was relocated to the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) in Tiptonville, which is approximately six hours away from Irion’s office and Fitzpatrick’s home.
Parole officer Judith Hilton-Coffman had originally stated in her pre-sentencing report that Fitzpatrick’s “crimes” victimized no one, but at the sentencing hearing, she changed her story and identified Cunningham as Fitzpatrick’s victim.
McMinn County Chief Court Clerk Rhonda Cooley refused to provide an audio recording or typed transcript to The Post & Email of the sentencing hearing by invoking the wording of the Tennessee Open Records Act which mandates that documents and other tangible materials be made available “to any citizen of this state.” A verbal complaint lodged with the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts yielded no results.
Fitzpatrick has insisted on receiving no letters, phone calls or visits during his time in prison. Before sentencing, he told The Post & Email that observers of his case should instead attempt to expose the criminality of Tennessee’s grand juries and courts and investigate how their own local grand juries are operating.
In the brief, Irion asks that Fitzpatrick be released on the grounds that the trial court did not have jurisdiction to prosecute based on at least one compromised grand juror and Cunningham’s refusal to recuse himself once becoming aware that he was named in Fitzpatrick’s petition.
In December, Tenth Judicial District chief prosecutor Steven Crump told a local radio show that “the grand jury is open to any citizen who wants to come and appear.” A review of the interview published in The Cleveland Daily Banner in December has been removed from the web, although The Post & Email possesses a hard copy.
The article is not found at the Wayback Machine.
In response to the Banner’s story, on January 20, The Post & Email wrote to District Attorney General for the Tenth Judicial District Steven Crump, requesting an investigation into the selection of grand jurors in the district, including the foreman. No response has been received as of this writing. We have also notified media contacts for the U.S. House and Senate Judiciary Committees on Tennessee judicial corruption which extends to at least two federal courts.
Fitzpatrick has noted on numerous occasions that without a properly-functioning grand jury, the constitutional republic created by the Founders does not exist, as there would then be no check on an overzealous government from seizing and incarcerating citizens for no valid reason.