by Sharon Rondeau
(Jul. 7, 2022) — As rescheduled for a final time on May 20 after numerous delays, Tennessee inmate Jason Lamar White appeared in the Shelby County Criminal Court on Tuesday for a post-conviction petition hearing awaited for more than two years.
Encompassing the city of Memphis, Shelby County comprises the state’s 30th Judicial District, whose chief prosecutor, Amy Weirich, was privately reprimanded by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2017 for her conduct in the high-profile case of Noura Jackson. In 2005, Jackson was accused of murdering her mother and served more than a decade in prison before the conviction was overturned by the state’s highest court.
Weirich has been reported to be the “most overzealous prosecutor” in a study by the Fair Punishment Project encompassing four states over the years 2010-2015 and is seeking re-election in August to another eight-year term. She played a major part in White’s being sent to serve his current 60-year sentence in New Mexico through a longstanding interstate compact agreement, which placed White at a distinct disadvantage as he was appealing his July 2017 conviction for allegedly conspiring to distribute methamphetamine in a drug-free zone.
There is no mechanism for an inmate to object to his relocation out of state, a TDOC official told The Post & Email last month.
At the outset of the case, in April 2016 White was charged with two lower-class felonies involving the delivery of a drug-filled package in February that year. The charges were inexplicably elevated to the most serious, Class “A” felonies on White’s record and judgment sheet, bringing with them a much harsher penalty at his sentencing in October 2017.
At the time, White was serving the remaining months of a 20-year sentence for a burglary occurring when he was 18. He and a co-defendant, Kristina Cole, on whose porch the package was dropped by the Bartlett Police Department in a “controlled delivery” which did not bear her address, maintain their innocence.
After retrieving the package on February 3, 2016, Cole was served with a search warrant and her home and computer searched, although a second warrant for her computer was not produced. White was implicated in the alleged plot through text messages he and Cole reportedly exchanged about the package as reported by then-Bartlett Police Department Detective Mark Gaia.
Gaia would later contradict his sworn testimony regarding another set of text messages sent from Cole’s phone while she was in policy custody, admitting on the stand to sending at least one of the messages himself.
In April of this year, Cole’s post-conviction petition was ruled upon favorably by a three-judge appellate panel which found that Judge Robert “Bobby” Carter, who also presided over White’s trial and is currently hearing White’s post-conviction matter, did not conduct a true “finding of fact” regarding Cole’s claims.
A former prosecutor who is reportedly retiring from the bench by the end of the year, Carter Carter meted out a six-decade sentence to White without the possibility of parole and a $2,000 fine. Cole, who had no previous criminal record, received a 13.5-year sentence.
In the successful appeal, Cole’s attorney, Benjamin Israel, cast doubt on Gaia‘s credibility. White has repeatedly subpoenaed Gaia to appear at his hearing each time it was rescheduled, but Gaia again eluded service on Tuesday.
In his petition, White contends ineffective assistance of counsel during the trial as well as the emergence of new evidence not then presented. White has three times asked Carter and the 30th Judicial District to recuse themselves after coming into possession of a May 2016 transcript depicting the prosecutor, Chris Scruggs, as engaged in a courtroom conversation with Carter which White believes demonstrates ex parte communication. Neither agreed to recuse, and therefore Carter presided on Tuesday.
A third co-defendant, Tennessee inmate Montez Mullins, confessed to carrying out the conspiracy alone and was brought in to testify. Weirich was also the subject of a subpoena, among a number of others, including White’s trial attorney, Claiborne Ferguson, although Weirich did not make an appearance.
The case recently attracted the attention of Tennessee gubernatorial candidate and Memphis farmer Carnita Atwater, who spoke with White’s mother Kimberly on Monday, July 4 and attended Tuesday’s hearing.
According to an eyewitness, the hearing began at 10:00 a.m. and concluded between 4:00 and 4:30 p.m. CDT. Early on, the eyewitness said, a “heated” exchange erupted over White’s motions for Carter and the 30th Judicial District to recuse themselves, with Carter “refusing to allow White to call Weirich to the stand.”
White did not have possession of all the legal materials he needed to present his case, we were told, as reportedly the Shelby County jail would not permit him to take them into the courtroom without the approval of Weirich’s office.
Scruggs, White’s public defender Robert Felkner, and Ferguson were in attendance, the eyewitness said, as well as Mullins, who was brought in from a “holding area” after speaking with his trial attorney.
A former criminal court clerk, Richard De Saussure III, was subpoenaed but did not appear.
Concerning Mullins’s testimony, the eyewitness told us:
Mullins testified to the fact that he gave Detective Christian a statement taking full responsibility for the package, that Cole was not told that meth was in the package, and he didn’t know how Jason became involved. He stated that he was taken to trial after admitting to the crime and that he didn’t know why he became a co-defendant. Jason asked if he had ever been to Cole’s home; he stated, “No.” Jason said, “So you don’t know if the address you had was Cole’s address?” He said, “No.” He stated he did not give her a tracking number. He made a statement in reference to the text messages but I can’t remember exactly what was said.
Judge Carter asked Jason if he could proceed with Mr. Felkner since he was in the courtroom. Jason looked though his legal material and said, “Yes.” Felkner took the stand. Jason questioned him on the June 2, 2016 arraignment, if he was aware of the ex parte communication between ADA Scruggs and Carter that had taken place two weeks prior. Felkner said, “No,” he would not have been aware of this ex parte issue since he was just in the courtroom and was appointed on the spot to arraign Jason. Jason asked him if he remembered the charges he arraigned Jason on prior to him waiving the reading of the charges. He said, “No, usually we just enter a ‘not-guilty’ plea and waive the reading of the charges.” Jason asked him if he spoke to the defendant (Jason) to see if he was aware of the charges brought against him. Felkner said no. Felkner was handed the 2016 indictment and asked to read the charges, then Felkner was handed the Capias witnessed by Richard De Saussure III as the True Bill of Indictment. He was asked to read the charge and the date (the 2016 indictment was entered as Exhibit 1, the Capias as Exhibit 2, the arraignment transcripts were Exhibit 3); he was handed the arraignment transcripts and asked to read the charges and the date. He was briefly questioned if the Capias was issued before or after the indictment (which would come first). Felkner was so nervous he was literally shaking holding the documents. Jason asked him to clarify something (I can’t remember exactly), then Judge Carter spoke up and was explaining to Jason his opinion on what Felkner was saying. So Carter was testifying on the record as to his opinion of Felkner’s testimony. Jason finished up with Felkner and the hearing was reset for Friday, July 8th @ 10:00.
In her interview with Kimberly White, Atwater said that as she has campaigned, she has spoken with “thousands” of people claiming to have been mistreated by Tennessee’s judicial system. The evidence Kimberly shared with her as to her son’s case, Atwater said, was “overwhelming.”