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“I NEED TO BE SET FREE”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 4, 2015) — On Wednesday, The Post & Email received a letter from CDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret.), who is incarcerated at the Northwest Correctional Center (NWCX) in Tiptonville, TN and whose exposure of local government corruption has been covered extensively by this publication.
Last August, Fitzpatrick was sentenced to three years in prison after attempting to submit what he believed was compelling evidence of widespread public corruption in McMinn County and Tennessee’s greater Tenth Judicial District, located in the southeastern corner of the state.
Since the fall of 2009, Fitzpatrick has been reporting on numerous violations of law committed by Tennessee criminal courts which include the installation of grand jury foremen personally selected by the judge from outside of the jury pool. The practice has been ongoing since at least 1919, when the legislature passed a law “legalizing” it.
Despite repeal of the law in 1979, the practice has continued, with judges appointing friends, business acquaintances and other familiar individuals to the foremanship of the county grand jury to serve as long as they wish, like a hired assistant. While some judges, and even a former Tennessee deputy attorney general, claim that the foreman is “not a juror” and does not vote with the grand jury, foremen often cast the deciding vote to indict a fellow citizen.
In contrast, a criminal court rule states that the grand jury foreman must “possess all the qualifications of a juror,” and TCA 22-2-314, passed in 2008, states that no juror can serve on a jury anywhere in the state a second time within a 24-month period.
Tennessee grand jury foremen have been observed to have served for as long as 28 consecutive years.
In 1984, a set of laws was passed by the legislature commanding the state’s county criminal courts to form districts consisting of several counties to allow for growth and presumably larger jury pools. The laws were ignored, with county criminal courts still operating as they did before.
After discovering the construction of the Monroe County grand jury, Fitzpatrick spoke with local law enforcers, court personnel, agents from the TBI and FBI, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, his state representative and senator as well as other members of the Tennessee legislature, and the governor’s office, but none would take any action to change the status quo.
On April 1, 2010, Fitzpatrick attempted a peaceful citizen’s arrest, which is invoked in the Tennessee Constitution as a legal means of stopping observed criminal activity, on then-Monroe County grand jury foreman Gary Pettway for having served at least 20 consecutive years. When Pettway refused to accompany Fitzpatrick, Judge Caroll Lee Ross was contacted, who then ordered that Fitzpatrick be arrested and jailed.
Fitzpatrick was held for five days, during which he refused food and water. On June 3, 2010, the Monroe County grand jury issued six indictments against Fitzpatrick which included “riot,” “disrupting a public meeting,” and “intimidation.” The judicially-appointed foreman, Angela Davis, had served not only during the January-June 2010 term on the grand jury, but also as a petit juror in the July-December 2009 term directly preceding it.
Judge John Kerry Blackwood, who Fitzpatrick informed us in his letter will be going into full retirement in the near future, was called to preside over Fitzpatrick’s December 2010 trial. Although Blackwood maintained that there was “no proof” that Davis was the same person who had served as a juror during the preceding term in violation of law, another state law requires that juror records be maintained for two years.
Between April 2010 and February 2012, Fitzpatrick was jailed a total of five times in Monroe County. Upon his last release from the Monroe County jail in February 2012, Fitzpatrick discovered that virtually all of his personal possessions and a considerable sum of cash had been stolen from the home he rented from Helen and Burt Thurston in Sweetwater. Although Fitzpatrick filed a report with the Sweetwater Police Department, no action was taken against the perpetrators, who were identified by eyewitnesses.
After relocating to McMinn County, Fitzpatrick again attempted to present written summaries of criminal activity he alleged to have observed on the part of court clerks, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and law enforcers revolving around the illegally-constructed grand juries. On March 18 of last year, after submitting one of numerous written complaints to the McMinn County grand jury and asking for an audience, two sheriff’s deputies arrested him while he was sitting reading a book awaiting a disposition on his complaint. The McMinn County grand jury had indicted Fitzpatrick on three felonies and one misdemeanor minutes after Judge Amy Armstrong Reedy had appointed a new foreman.
Fitzpatrick was jailed until he made bond approximately five days later.
During a pretrial hearing on June 16, the alleged victim of Fitzpatrick’s purported crimes, Jeffrey Cunningham, stated under oath that he never submitted a criminal complaint, sworn statement, or any other kind of report naming Fitzpatrick as a criminal perpetrator. Fitzpatrick’s attorney, Van Irion, stated on the record that several members of the grand jury which had indicted Fitzpatrick provided inconsistent accounts of the events leading up to Fitzpatrick’s indictment and arrest. Irion alleged that at least one grand juror was compromised, as she reported having asked Cunningham in January if she should “be afraid of Mr. Fitzpatrick.” On that day, Cunningham had called for police escorts from the courthouse to the parking lot for both the grand jurors and Fitzpatrick after Fitzpatrick submitted a criminal complaint.
Following a trial on June 23 and 24, Fitzpatrick was convicted of two felonies, with the charge of stalking having been dismissed by Blackwood and the charge of harassment resulting in an acquittal. None of the jurors responded to The Post & Email’s requests for comment after the conclusion of the trial.
A trial observer said that there was “no way” the jurors could have reviewed all of the “evidence” used against Fitzpatrick, which consisted solely of his criminal complaints submitted to the grand jury, before reaching their conclusions.
On August 19, following Blackwood’s lengthy soliloquy in which he called Fitzpatrick a “moral coward,” Blackwood sentenced Fitzpatrick to three years in state prison, which included punishment from a suspended sentence from a previous case in Monroe County. During that trial, Vietnam veteran Judge Walter C. Kurtz claimed that the judge can choose the grand jury foreman from wherever he wishes and that the foreman can serve at the pleasure of the judge, disagreeing with Blackwood, who once said that “the grand jury foreman is no different than any other member of the grand jury.”
On May 19, oral argument was heard at an appellate court in Knoxville in Fitzpatrick’s case. While the state contended that Fitzpatrick posed a threat to Cunningham, Irion insisted that his client was threatened by Cunningham when Cunningham approached him on February 18, 2014 with an armed deputy, telling him that if he returned to the McMinn County courthouse, he would have him arrested.
Fitzpatrick was first taken to the McMinn County jail, then transported to the Bledsoe County Correctional Center (BCCX), which is known as a processing center for all new inmates.
Assaults, food “unfit for human consumption,” torture and other human rights violations have been reported from prisoners at various Tennessee prisons. Former inmate Mike Parsons has lost hearing in one ear from a prison assault, while current inmate Timothy Aaron Baxter has lost most of the use of his left arm, suffers from migraine headaches and ringing in the ears as a result of being hit on the back of the head with a radio by two corrections officers on September 11, 2009. Baxter filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 for his injuries which has still not been fully adjudicated.
In May 2009, an inmate was reportedly killed at NWCX, where Baxter is currently imprisoned.
While incarcerated in the Monroe County jail in November 2010, Fitzpatrick reported “freezing cold” temperatures, “raw sewage pouring onto the floor,” and that “people are getting sick.”
At a hearing in October in which Irion called for a new trial, an observer reported that Fitzpatrick, who was in attendance, did not look physically well.
Irion, who specializes in business law as well as criminal law, is working for Fitzpatrick on a pro bono basis. Donations to the legal fund established to assist in Fitzpatrick’s defense can be made here.
Born in 1952, Fitzpatrick is 63 years old. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, he served in the Navy from 1975 to 1994. While he had intended to serve longer, his career was cut short by a court-martial in 1990 in which his name was forged to a “confession” letter he never saw until three years later. Despite the court-martial, Fitzpatrick received an honorable discharge and pension.
The letter we received, with minor redactions, reads as follows: