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Courthouse drug scandal spurs bids for retrials

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP file photo)
Belleville attorney Thomas Q. Keefe III and his client former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook (right) exit the Federal courthouse in East St. Louis after a pretrial hearing Sept. 23. Cook's fellow judges are weighing whether to grant retrials to defendants convicted under Cook as fallout from the drug scandal continues.

ST. LOUIS – Two days after a friend died of a cocaine overdose at Michael Cook’s western Illinois hunting lodge, the St. Clair County circuit judge was back on the bench, presiding over a murder trial.

The defendant, Gregory Muse, was convicted, but his attorneys said in an appeal that the judge’s speech was slurred while reading instructions to jurors. Two months later, the judge resigned when he was charged with possessing heroin and having a gun while on controlled substances.

Now the fallout from the courthouse scandal is beginning to take root, as fellow judges weigh whether to grant retrials to defendants convicted under Cook. They already have reassigned hundreds of cases he heard, while prosecutors re-examine cases handled by Cook’s overdosed friend, Joe Christ, a longtime prosecutor who had been sworn in as a judge himself a few days before his death.

Muse’s attorneys summed up the challenge for St. Clair’s judicial system as “a novel affair” that might not be covered by existing legal precedent. The St. Clair County state’s attorney, Brendan Kelly, has called it “a man-made disaster.”

Muse’s attorneys are demanding a new trial because of the charges against Cook. They are using many of the same arguments that attorneys used earlier this month to successfully secure a new trial for another convicted killer, William Cosby – that Cook’s drug use cost them fair trials, and was compounded by the fact that prosecutors neglected to tell them that Cook was being investigated by federal authorities.

Kelly’s office has argued against the new trials, although without directly addressing the allegations that Cook was impaired on the bench. Prosecutors say that neither Muse nor Cosby has cited any specific examples of how Cook allegedly botched their proceedings, and that revealing the federal probe of Cook would have “destroyed” it.

Both cases are scheduled for hearings on Oct. 30.

“We are taking each motion for a new trial on a case by case basis,” said Kelly. “Appeals can surface years later so we may not know every challenge we’ll face for some time. It could be many. It could be only these few.”

The Belleville News-Democrat reported Monday that Cook had presided over 1,705 felony cases, according to figures provided by prosecutors, and it’s unknown if any other defendants will seek a retrial. Eight of the cases were bench trials, with three ending in guilty verdicts, and 24 were jury trials, resulting in 20 guilty verdicts. Another 1,102 resulted in plea deals, while 93 were reduced to misdemeanors and 319 were still pending, the newspaper reported.

Kelly has asked two former state’s attorneys to review all the relevant cases. That process is ongoing.

A federal criminal complaint against Cook accused him of being a drug addict. He pleaded not guilty but resigned in May, agreed to have his law license suspended and sought drug treatment in Minnesota. His trial is scheduled for December, and one of his attorneys told a judge in September that he may offer an updated plea before then.

In a related case, prosecutors say a man named Sean McGilvery signed a plea agreement on Oct. 17 to federal heroin conspiracy and possession charges, stipulating that he supplied Cook with heroin “on an almost daily basis.” In an affidavit filed in an unresolved criminal case against a St. Clair County probation officer, the FBI said that defendant admitted providing cocaine to Cook and Christ on several occasions. Authorities say one of those times proved fatal for Christ.

When reached by The Associated Press, an attorney for Cook, Thomas Keefe III, declined to discuss his client’s alleged drug use or the ensuing fallout.

Cook was on the bench after Christ’s death in the case of Muse, on trial in the 2011 shooting death of an alleged accomplice during an East St. Louis pawn shop robbery. Muse’s attorneys contend in their new trial demand that on the final day of the proceedings, they “noticed that Mr. Cook had slurred speech during the reading of the jury instructions” before jurors deliberated and convicted Muse.

Deborah Phillips, a prosecutor who works for Kelly, has countered in her own motions that even if Cook’s speech was impaired, jurors got written copies of their instructions for guidance. Muse, she adds, “cannot point to any ruling or action by the court which was the result of any ingestion by the judge of illegal controlled substances which resulted in the jury considering inadmissible or improper evidence.”

Phillips made similar arguments earlier this month in the case of Cosby, who was pursuing a new trial after his April conviction of a 2012 East St. Louis shooting death.

Cosby’s attorneys, on appeal, wrote that he “had serious issues concerning (Cook’s) conduct, demeanor, impatience and obvious drug problem while presiding over this case.” Cosby argued that his initial trial attorney “steadfastly” refused to raise issues about Cook’s “strange behavior.”

Phillips has fired back, saying “overwhelming evidence established the defendant’s guilt as found by the jury.”

But on Oct. 2, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida ordered Cosby retried, ruling that Cosby’s defense team should have been told that Cook and the case’s key investigator were under drug investigations.

“In the interest of justice, I must grant a new trial,” Haida said. “I don’t do this lightly.”

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