IN ACCORDANCE WITH STATE STATUTE
by Sharon Rondeau
The “court” is expressed with quotation marks as a result of a set of laws passed in 1984 by the Tennessee legislature ordering the county criminal courts to combine with others in a carefully-laid-out plan to form judicial districts which was never observed.
While Tennessee’s extant “county criminal courts” continue to function independently as they did before the laws were passed, the judicial districts as designated by the legislature were formed.
McMinn County is one of four within Tennessee’s Tenth Judicial District, the remaining three being Monroe, Bradley and Polk Counties.
Some large counties, such as Knox, were designated to become their own judicial district. The legislature indicated that the county courts were to be limited to civil matters such as probate, guardianship, wills, estates, and name changes.
In regard to criminal courts, grand jurors are chosen once a year, while trial jurors are chosen twice per calendar year. According to Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) 22-2-310, “The members of the grand and petit juries shall be made up as provided by law from the jury pool.”
TCA 22-1-101 sets forth the qualifications of jurors:
The text of the law reads:
22-1-101. Obligation to serve — Qualifications.
It is policy of this state that all qualified citizens have an obligation to serve on petit juries or grand juries when summoned by the courts of this state, unless excused. Every person eighteen (18) years of age, being a citizen of the United States, and a resident of this state, and of the county in which the person may be summoned for jury service for a period of twelve (12) months next preceding the date of the summons, is legally qualified to act as a grand or petit juror, if not otherwise incompetent under the express provisions of this title.
Another statute, TCA 22-2-314, states that no juror may serve on a grand or trial jury in the state of Tennessee if he or she has served during the previous 24 months.
Fitzpatrick discovered in 2010 that that law is not consistently applied.
A McMinn County resident and observer to Tuesday’s proceedings, LCDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret), told The Post & Email afterward that Judge J. Michael Sharp neglected to properly screen the potential jurors, who were assembled in two groups at 9:00 a.m. EDT and 11:00 a.m., respectively.
While Fitzpatrick said that Sharp questioned the prospective jurors in accordance with TCA 22-1-101, he did not observe TCA 22-2-314.
“I realized there was a question Sharp didn’t ask which is required,” Fitzpatrick told us. From having studied Tennessee Code as it relates to juror selection, The Post & Email responded with, “‘Has anyone served within the past 24 months?'” which Fitzpatrick confirmed was the missing query.
Fitzpatrick said that in an unusual development, McMinn County Sheriff Joe Guy was acting as bailiff for Sharp.
Fitzpatrick said that during the break between juror selection sessions, he told elected circuit court clerk Rhonda Cooley that the judge failed to ask a necessary question to properly screen the potential jurors. Cooley responded by asking Fitzpatrick the nature of the question. After Fitzpatrick said he wished to relate it to Sharp directly, Cooley stated that she would notify Guy, who would notify Sharp.
After several minutes, Guy emerged from Sharp’s chambers to approach Fitzpatrick, stating that Sharp was “busy” and could not meet with him. Guy asked Fitzpatrick to write out the question so that he could relay it to the judge, which Fitzpatrick declined to do.
The 11:00 a.m. session began, with Sharp again asking the questions pertinent to TCA 22-1-101, although worded differently from the first session, but excluding the provision outlined in TCA 22-2-314. “I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt the first time,” Fitzpatrick said, “but the second time was on him.”
Fitzpatrick reported that after the potential jurors underwent Sharp’s questioning, Fitzpatrick made his exit. “I was the only person in the courtroom not obligated to be there,” he said. “I was sitting up front. But at that point, when the questioning was over, I walked out.”
In August 2014, Guy’s deputies took Fitzpatrick into custody at the county jail after Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood sentenced him to three years in state prison as a result of “aggravated perjury” and “extortion” convictions by a McMinn County trial jury. Fitzpatrick was imprisoned for more than two years and two months, during which time he developed septicemia, a life-threatening infection, and underwent three surgeries on a limb.
He was discharged on October 25, 2016, 40 pounds thinner than when he was taken into custody, with a soft cast on the affected limb and a bus ticket and overnight ride to back to Athens in McMinn County.
Fitzpatrick was charged after attempting to approach the “McMinn County grand jury” with evidence of local-government corruption among judges; prosecutors; court clerks; Guy and his deputies; and the grand jury foreman, who was handpicked by then-Judge Amy Armstrong Reedy.
In 2009, Fitzpatrick inadvertently discovered that all Tennessee “criminal court” judges hand-pick the grand jury foreman from outside of the jury pool, who serves for as long as the judge wishes, sometimes for decades. The hand-selection of the grand jury foreman was one of Fitzpatrick’s chief complaints which he and his attorney, Van Irion, insisted was protected speech and activity under the First Amendment.