by Sharon Rondeau
(Sep. 15, 2023) — On August 23, former Tennessee inmate Kristina Cole filed a Writ of Error Coram Nobis with the Shelby County Criminal Court, which oversaw her 2017 conviction on two counts of drug distribution dating back to a police-initiated incident on February 3, 2016.
At her October 2017 sentencing, Cole received 13.5 years in prison without the possibility of parole for her alleged role in a scheme to sell methamphetamine within the “drug free zone” in which she lived.
At the time, Cole’s sentence was “enhanced” with an additional six months’ prison time given that her alleged crime fell into a category of crime required by law. Due to a 2020 change in the statute making enhancement optional, late last year Gov. Bill Lee recommended Cole for early parole eligibility after she appealed to his office directly, without the assistance of an attorney.
Several months later, the Board of Parole concurred with Lee’s recommendation, resulting in Cole’s release on April 25 after 6.5 years of confinement.
Since then, Cole has secured employment and reunited with family members who she rarely saw during her time in prison.
Cole has not only professed her innocence throughout her ordeal but also resolved to prove it and have her record expunged.
As The Post & Email has reported, the charges levied against Cole and two others stemmed from a “controlled delivery” of a box, said to contain methamphetamine, to Cole’s front porch on February 3, 2016. The box was sent from Visalia, CA to the Bartlett Police Department, which serves part of the city of Memphis in Shelby County. The BPD repackaged and relabeled the box to bear Cole’s address, which was similar to but not the same as that which appeared on the initial mailing label.
Retrieving the box from the porch that day, Cole said, BPD officers soon descended on her home, knocked and entered, and commandeered her phone; handcuffed not only her, but also two of her children, one of whom was a minor at the time; and asked questions about a photograph they found of Tennessee inmate Jason Lamar White, also of Shelby County and Cole’s boyfriend at the time.
Cole has told of her ordeal in her own words in which she said she suspects White was the actual target of the events that day and afterward.
White had nearly completed a 21-year sentence on a conviction on an unrelated charge when he was implicated in the alleged scheme involving Cole and another state inmate, Montez Mullins. Initially brought in as a witness, Mullins offered a confession to initiating the plan without Cole and White’s involvement.
Mullins was then charged in the case. All were convicted, with White, who is now 42, receiving the harshest sentence of six decades in prison, a $2,000 fine and no possibility of parole.
Despite having achieved relative “freedom” upon her release, Cole told us, she remains on parole until the end of her sentence, another eight years, and consequently is seeking to obtain justice through the system which convicted her by correcting the record.
On July 17, Cole applied for a review to a newly-formed unit within the Shelby County prosecutor’s office, the Justice Review Unit, stressing that the package which ensnared her in the alleged conspiracy was not initially addressed to her.
The following day, the JRU rejected her request, stating she failed to “provide any new evidence” regarding her case.
In her recent Writ of Error Coram Nobis to the Shelby County Criminal Court, Division III, Cole cited a May 16, 2016 court transcript showing the trial judge, Robert “Bobby” Carter, Jr., received an opinionated briefing on White’s history from the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney General Christopher Scruggs. Both Cole and White have termed Scruggs’s comments “ex parte communication” which they claim should have caused Carter and the prosecutor to recuse themselves.
Neither White nor Cole nor their attorneys were present at the hearing, a point both defendants have made in various petitions. “PETITIONER COLE COULD DEMONSTRATE TO THIS COURT THAT JUDGE CARTER’S ACTION BY ENTERTAINING THIS EX PARTE CONVERSATION DID NOT JUST VIOLATE HER RIGHT TO THE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL BUT THAT IT AFFECTED JUDGE CARTER’S ABILITY TO REMAIN NEUTRAL AND UNBIAS IN HIS DECISIONS DURING MS. COLE’S CRIMINAL PROCEDURE,” Cole wrote in her Coram Nobis brief. “THIS WOULD ALSO SHOW HOW IT VIOLATED MS. COLE’S RIGHT SET UNDER DUE PROCESS TO BE TREATED EQUAL IN THE EYES OF THE LAW.”
White’s Coram Nobis petition, filed in late June similarly claiming “new evidence” with an affidavit from Cole, was denied August 10.
Cole told The Post & Email she was not surprised that her petition was denied. “What concerns me,” she wrote in an email, “is that they note that I accused Bobby Carter and Paul Haggerman for judicial and prosecutorial misconduct when it was Scruggs not Haggerman. I find it odd that they noted this different name in my denial.” [sic]
In his 2+-page denial to Cole’s petition, Judge James Jones, Jr., elected in August 2022 upon Carter’s impending retirement, contended Cole failed to present “newly-discovered evidence” “that would warrant any type of relief.”
Last month, Jones was publicly admonished for writing letters on behalf of two defendants convicted in a “Florida wire fraud case” requesting the court mete out “mercy in its sentencing.” “The letters were written on official court stationery,” the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct wrote in its judgment, “you identified yourself in the body of the letters as a ‘Criminal Court Judge in Memphis, Tennessee,’ and you signed the letters as ‘Hon. James Jones, Jr.’ You allowed your spouse to sign the letters as well. The letters did not disclose to the court that your spouse had been named a party with the defendants in a civil case stemming from the defendants’ criminal activity.”
The website of Tennessee’s 30th Judicial District’s chief prosecutor Steve Mulroy (D), also elected last August and replacing Republican Amy Weirich, states that “Paul Hagerman” is a “Deputy District Attorney.”
Scruggs is no longer with the office, The Commercial Appeal has reported.
Ironically, Scruggs was one of two public servants seconding Lee’s recommendation that Cole receive an early release.