BELLEVILLE – A second convicted killer was granted a new trial Wednesday after questioning whether the presiding judge in both cases was impaired by drug use that federal investigators say included heroin.
Gregory Muse was to face sentencing Wednesday but instead got his conviction thrown out, marking the latest fallout over the drug charges facing former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook and a courthouse scandal that included an ex-prosecutor's cocaine death.
Circuit Judge Robert Haida, the southwestern Illinois county's former longtime top prosecutor, suggested he had little choice but to order Muse retried "in the interest of justice."
"I can't speculate on what Judge Cook did or why he did it," Haida said in siding with Muse, a bald, gray-bearded man who, dressed in an orange jail-issued jumpsuit, said nothing during the 40-minute hearing. But "as I sit now reviewing this matter, I can't say with the certainty that I need to say that Gregory Muse received a fair trial."
Muse, 55, pressed through public defender Erin Conner that jurors who convicted him in March of first-degree murder did so after Cook appeared to slur his words while reading the jury instructions, and that prosecutors at the trial unforgivably failed to disclose to Muse that Cook was being investigated. Had they done so, Conner submitted, Muse could have asked for a new judge.
Deborah Phillips, an assistant prosecutor under State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, countered that Cook was convicted due to "overwhelming" evidence, and that Muse has never cited any specific examples of how Cook allegedly botched the proceedings or showed bias. Any impaired speech by Cook, Phillips suggested, may have been the result of the judge having to read 29 pages of jury instructions, which jurors also got written copies of during deliberations.
"That's the bottom line," Phillips told Haida. "There is simply not enough to call into question, to use the defense's terms, to overturn the verdict."
Arguments similar to Muse's already were pressed by William Cosby, whom Haida on Oct. 2 also granted a new trial after challenging the fairness of his trial, which Cook presided over in April. Cosby was convicted in last year's shooting death of a man outside an East St. Louis lounge.
That conviction, a month after Muse's, came roughly three weeks before federal prosecutors charged Cook with possessing heroin and having a gun while illegally using controlled substances.
Cook has resigned, pleaded not guilty, attended drug rehab in Minnesota and awaits a trial scheduled for Dec. 9, though his attorneys have said recently in court that Cook may plead guilty before then.
One of Cook's attorneys, Thomas Keefe III, has declined to publicly discuss his client's alleged drug use or the ensuing fallout involving Muse and Cosby.
Authorities have said Cook was with Joe Christ, a former longtime St. Clair County prosecutor and newly appointed associate judge, in March when Christ died of a cocaine overdose at the Cook family's western Illinois hunting cabin. Cook has not been charged in the death of Christ, a 49-year-old father of six.
Just two days after Christ's death, Cook was back on the bench for Muse's trial in the 2011 shooting death of an alleged accomplice during an East St. Louis pawn shop robbery.
Kelly, the state's attorney, said earlier this month that additional defendants unsatisfied by the outcomes of cases presided over by Cook may come forward ask for new trials, though the possible numbers remain elusive. "We may not know every challenge we'll face for some time. It could be many. It could be only these few," Kelly said.
After Haida's ruling Wednesday, Kelly said only that "judges, public defenders and prosecutors are doing their level best to uphold their oaths and do their duty under the circumstances. The court has ruled; we'll push on and prepare for trial."
Cook became an associate circuit judge in 2007 and was appointed a circuit judge in 2010, then won a six-year term later that year. After his resignation, his pending cases were reassigned.