by Sharon Rondeau
(Jul. 22, 2021) — Two co-defendants in a 2017 case arising in Shelby County, TN remain in prison despite faulty testimony proffered against them at trial and a confession from a third defendant who is also imprisoned.
The case arose after a package from an unidentified sender in Visalia, CA arrived on February 3, 2016 in a “controlled delivery” at Kristina Cole’s home, whose address resembled but did not match the address on the package. The mailing was found to contain “approximately one pound” of methamphetamine, according to an affidavit from then-Detective Mark Gaia of the Bartlett Police Department.
As The Post & Email reported in October 2017, according to Gaia’s affidavit, the box was addressed to “2552 Jenwood Street, Memphis, TN 38134,” where Cole resided, but the original shipping label read, “2552 Linwood Road, Bartlett, TN 38134.”
Based on the package, in July 2017 Cole and Tennessee inmates Jason Lamar White and Montez Mullins were tried and found guilty of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine in a “drug free zone” in which a school is located. Cole and White are presently in prisons approximately 2,000 miles apart, with Cole at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary (WTSP) and White relocated to New Mexico in May 2019 at the request of Tennessee 30th Judicial District (Shelby County) District Attorney General Amy Weirich.
White was “sprinted to out-of-state prison to be housed on the Tennessee conviction by Interstate Compact on May 19, 2019,” his mother, Kimberly White, told us in a July 10 interview, “the day he flattened his 21-year sentence on his conviction at the age of 18 years.”
While Weirich’s official website states that her office respects the right of “due process,” her record shows otherwise. As a result of ethics complaints filed in 2016 arising from a 2005 murder trial in which she demanded in a courtroom outburst that the defendant, Noura Jackson, testify, Weirich received a private reprimand from the Tennessee Supreme Court in March 2017. A prosecutor in her office, Steve Jones, was also the subject of a complaint with a report he withheld potentially exculpatory evidence in the case but was not reprimanded.
In a study done by the Fair Punishment Project spanning the years 2010 to 2015, Weirich was found to be one of the most frequently-overturned prosecutors in Tennessee and three other states, and she was identified as having demonstrated the highest level of “professional misconduct” of prosecutors in Tennessee’s 95 counties.
Both White and Cole maintain their innocence of the charges and have appealed their respective convictions. White is scheduled for a hearing on August 27 on a January 2, 2020 post-conviction petition in which he claimed ineffective assistance of counsel during the 2017 trial as well as other defects and “new evidence.”
The third defendant, WTSP inmate Montez Mullins, produced both written and tape-recorded confessions to having arranged the delivery of the package, declaring White and Cole uninvolved in the plot.
Cole, a single mother of three, had no prior criminal history and was sentenced to 13.5 years in prison. White was given a 60-year prison without possibility of parole, which will render him nearly 100 years old at the time of his release.
Mullins’s TDOC record states he received a 30-year sentence for his role in the alleged conspiracy and is presently serving a combined 100-year sentence for all convictions, which include “aggravated assault” and “aggravated robbery.”
Judge Robert “Bobby” Carter presided over the trial held for all three defendants in which Gaia testified to text messages exchanged between Cole and White implicating them in the crime. However, Gaia later recanted his testimony, admitting to having used Cole’s phone to send the text messages to White while Cole was being booked.
Cole’s post-conviction petition was denied and an appeal is pending, Kimberly informed us. Under pressure from a Shelby County assistant district attorney, Cole refused to incriminate her son in any wrongdoing, Kimberly said, as evidenced by two letters written by Cole’s former attorney, Michael E. Scholl, to the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility (BOPR) following Cole’s filing of two complaints against him.
The transcript of Cole’s post-conviction hearing on August 27, 2020, shows that Cole was on the phone from prison, with the volume adjusted “down as low as it will go” (p. 8).
On page 3 of part 2 of the post-conviction hearing transcript, Gaia, who testified that he had left the Bartlett Police Department, also said he did not have a warrant to search Cole’s computer when he executed the search warrant on her home. He obtained “verbal” permission to search her computer, he said, and did not have a consent form with him to obtain it in writing.
Kimberly said she believes Cole has been discriminated against and failed to receive not only due process, but also fair treatment from those purportedly defending her. “Kristina has never testified or given a statement as to what happened,” Kimberly noted and Scholl emphasized in his first BOPR letter.
The case against the three defendants was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorney Chris Scruggs, who also prosecuted a case involving approximately 17 defendants in an alleged drug ring in 2017. Of the 17, April Malone; her mother, Patricia Malone; and Celitria Watson were arrested as a result of falsified text messages which Watson was able to prove, resulting in their quiet removal from the case and Celitria and April filing a federal lawsuit against Shelby County prosecutors and members of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. As the case progressed, several parties were removed, with two Memphis Police Department officers and the City of Memphis remaining.
A “contract hit” of which Scholl claimed Scruggs informed him allegedly orchestrated by White targeting Scruggs and Ferguson did not result in additional charges against White.
White asked that the Shelby County District Attorney’s office be disqualified from arguing the State’s case against him. In a May 4, 2021 motion, the office responded that White “provides no evidence that the trial prosecutor, ADA Scruggs, has ‘compromising interests and loyalties’ relating to his representation of the State in this matter which would necessitate his disqualification” (p. 5, State’s Response to Motion to Disqualify).
The State claimed, however, that if the allegation reportedly floated by Scruggs to Scholl of White’s alleged “contract hit” targeting Scruggs and Ferguson were “true,” “this very circumstance would necessitate disqualification of the Office from other participation in his case.”
On July 14, 2021, the court declined White’s Petition to Rehear his petition for “extraordinary appeal” which was denied on June 28, 2021.
Kimberly fears for her son’s safety both presently and in the event he is transferred back to Tennessee for the August 27 hearing, she said. “In the transcript, Judge Carter mentioned ‘getting him back here safely.’ Why would he make a statement like that unless he’s referring to COVID?” she asked for emphasis during our interview. The transfer is necessary, however, Kimberly said, because in New Mexico, her son does not have access to Tennessee law. A June 11, 2021 transfer order signed by Carter does not state where White is currently housed.
“I am concerned for Jason’s life, due to his determination to expose the corruption in this case,” Kimberly told us. “It is very clear even to a blind person the misconduct, constitutional violations, false evidence and false testimony these corrupt officials and their parties that assisted in covering and colluding to convict Jason and Kristina. The Judicial parties are just as determined to sweep it under the rug like they have in many other cases.”
“Jason has a motion to disqualify the judge which he’d like to have heard on the 27th,” she added, stating that Carter denied the motion once before. “He has 8-10 witnesses he wants to call and put on his evidence. Jason is so determined to prove his innocence in this case along with Kristina’s. According to law Jason has the right as a pro se inmate to be present at every hearing. Jason says they have to bring him back, but we have already seen what they are capable of doing in an effort to cover this up. In Carter saying, ‘I’m not hearing to any of his Motions until he is present’ to me is pretty much saying if Jason isn’t ever present in court then the judge won’t have to hear the Motion to Recuse himself or the DA’s Office. That is one sure way not to have to hear to his Motions: just deny them. They can find every excuse in the book to make him have to do a Zoom video or a deposition — another means to violate his rights to pro se. Jason doesn’t want to hear that, but we have uncovered a lot of information with Transcripts to back it up. I pray he gets to come back and put on his defense in Carter’s courtroom.”