Tennessee Appellate Court Opines Grand Jury “Bias” Acceptable

ASSERTS “FALSE ALLEGATIONS” WERE MADE AGAINST FORMER GRAND JURY FOREMAN

by Sharon Rondeau

(Sep. 18, 2015) — In an opinion stamped “Filed” on September 8, 2015, a Knoxville appellate court upheld the conviction of Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III for aggravated perjury and extortion in June of last year.

The Post & Email received the document electronically from Fitzpatrick’s attorney, Van Irion, on Friday afternoon.

WFF Appeals Court Opinion September 2015

On March 18, 2014, Fitzpatrick took the last of a number of petitions to the McMinn County Courthouse to request a hearing with one of two grand juries empaneled in January, as happens each year.

In Tennessee, criminal court judges hand-select the grand jury foreman, reappointing him or her as many times as they wish, resulting in foremen who often serve for decades.  In his several complaints, Fitzpatrick named McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy, Cunningham, then-District Attorney General R. Steven Bebb, then-Criminal Court Judge Amy Armstrong Reedy and others with professional misconduct and violations of law.

The 23-page decision states that if Fitzpatrick’s contentions about former McMinn County grand jury foreman Jeffrey Cunningham “had been believed,” Cunningham could have suffered damage to his “business repute.”  The court did not address why a member of the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) was serving as grand jury foreman for $11.00 a day in addition to his position as president and CEO of Athens Federal Community Bank.

Cunningham’s testimony at a June 16, 2014 pre-trial hearing stated that Reedy had called him at home one evening late in 2011 and asked him to be her “next grand jury foreman,” a fact the appellate court omitted.  Instead, the court stated:

He [Cunningham] explained that he was officially appointed to serve as the foreperson pursuant to an order from the McMinn County Criminal Court.

On page 2, the court opined that Cunningham’s departure from Tennessee law in the way in which two members of the grand jury are selected to decide, along with the foreman, whether or not an individual’s petition has merit, Cunningham’s own choice of the two grand jurors is “consistent with the long-standing practice in McMinn County.”

Although Cunningham is identified as a “victim” of Fitzpatrick’s aggression, an initial Parole Board report stated that there was “no victim” in the case.  During testimony, Cunningham denied having filed a complaint against Fitzpatrick at any time.

In January of last year, Cunningham had told the grand jury of Fitzpatrick’s “history” prior to the same body’s indictment of him two months later.

Throughout the document, it is clear that the court accepted Cunningham’s statements as truth without investigating them.

During oral argument on May 19 of this year, Irion stated that Fitzpatrick was attempting to petition the government for redress of grievances and that at least one grand juror or should have been disqualified before a vote to issue an indictment was taken.

In response, the appellate court wrote:

 Tennessee courts “have never required grand jurors to be free from previous opinions as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant…”  Significantly, a grand jury does not determine the guilt or innocence of an accused; instead, it serves as an investigatory and accusatory body that determines whether there is sufficient evidence to justify bringing an accused to trial… The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that bias, prejudice, or possessing outside information does not disqualify a person from serving as a grand juror:…

Fitzpatrick was sentenced on August 19, 2014 and is currently incarcerated at the Northwest Correctional Complex (NWCX) in Tiptonville.  Recent letters from Fitzpatrick and other inmates, in addition to mainstream media reports, indicate that violence at the prison has risen dramatically since the onset of a staffing shortage apparently caused by a change in scheduling and the manner in which overtime pay is calculated for corrections officers.

A previous attorney for Fitzpatrick, Stephen Pidgeon, told the media several years ago that the Tennessee court system is “hopelessly corrupted.”

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