Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. has been assigned to review whether his Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Court colleague, Judge Michael T. Muldrew, should recuse himself from hearing the murder case pending against William Marcus “Marc” Wilson and also from deciding whether Wilson’s lead attorney, Francys Johnson, committed contempt of court last Thursday morning.
Wilson, now 23, faces charges of felony murder and aggravated assault for the June 14, 2020, death of Haley Hutcheson, 17, shot while they were in separate motor vehicles moving along Veterans Memorial Parkway, Statesboro’s bypass. Denied bond, Wilson has now been in jail for 15 months.
Last week’s proceeding was not a trial, but was instead a hearing on a motion filed by Wilson’s attorneys seeking to have him declared immune to prosecution on the basis of Georgia’s “stand his or her ground” law.
The hearing, which began Wednesday, had been expected to last three days. But a tense exchange Thursday morning extended a long midday break for hours and brought the hearing to a halt in the late afternoon.
That morning, after Johnson saw some documents in a notebook that had been handed to him, apparently by mistake, by a judicial assistant to Muldrew, the judge ordered Johnson to return them. He refused to do so, insisting that the documents should go to the clerk of court instead. Soon after that, Muldrew ordered deputies to take Johnson into custody for contempt of court. But when Muldrew ordered a sheriff’s deputy to seize the notebook from Johnson, the deputy had done so, Mawuli Davis, another of Wilson’s defense attorneys, stated in an affidavit.
Three of Wilson’s other defense attorneys, including Davis, Martha C. Hall and R. Gary Spencer, then filed a habeas corpus petition seeking to have Johnson released, and Davis filed motions to have Muldrew recused both from a hearing on whether Johnson was in contempt and from further handling Wilson’s case and potential trial.
When Muldrew reconvened the hearing at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, he issued an order releasing Johnson, who had been held elsewhere in the Bulloch County Judicial Annex, to await a hearing on the contempt of court allegation. The judge also stated that, in compliance with the Uniform Rules of Superior Court, he would pass the recusal motions on to another judge to review and would have no further dealings with the Wilson case until the other judge decides to send it back to his court.
Muldrew filed orders Friday for Bulloch County Superior Court Clerk Heather Banks McNeal “to randomly reassign” both motions to another judge for consideration. McNeal then issued notices assigning these to Bennett, “using the circuit’s existing, random, impartial case assignment.”
With the point being to take Muldrew out of deciding these questions, the only possibilities in the regular Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Court rotation were Bennett and Chief Judge F. Gates Peed.
At this point, Bennett is not assigned the Wilson case for trial and isn’t required to decide whether Johnson should have been held in contempt of court. Instead, Bennett is assigned only to consider whether Muldrew should be recused from the contempt hearing and the overall case.
Meanwhile, Johnson, while remaining Wilson’s lead defense attorney, now has an attorney of his own.
S. Lester Tate III of the Cartersville firm Akin & Tate filed an electronic notice of appearance as “counsel of record” for Johnson with the Bulloch County Superior Court on Friday.
Tate, a past chair of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission and of the General Practice and Trial Section of the State Bar of Georgia, lists attorney discipline cases and criminal defense among several areas of practice on his firm’s website.
But it was Davis who signed Thursday’s motion for recusal. In the accompanying affidavit, he stated that the binder Johnson was handed contained copies of emails that passed between Wilson and his parents and other individuals while he is in jail.
Davis asserted that the judge received Wilson’s emails as “potential ex parte communications,” meaning for one side in the case and not the other, and had failed to disclose this to the defense.
“Mr. Davis asserts that a reasonable person would believe that Mr. Wilson cannot receive a fair hearing in the instant case or the trial, and seeks recusal of Judge Muldrew in this instance,” the affidavit ends.
With the immunity hearing halted late Thursday afternoon, Muldrew also issued a continuance to an undetermined date.
Speaking to the judge at that time, Davis said that Wilson had not wanted to appear in court without Johnson because he was his lead attorney.
“This court has bent over backwards to make sure that every right accorded Mr. Wilson as a criminal defendant is scrupulously adhered to,” Muldrew said, adding that he believed Wilson was still represented by competent counsel.
June 2020 tragedy
Witnesses at previous hearings testified that Wilson, while driving his car, fired a handgun and that a bullet struck Hutcheson in the back of the head as she rode with four other teenagers in a pickup truck on the bypass about 1 a.m. that Sunday.
But defense attorneys have asserted that Wilson, who is biracial, and a white then-girlfriend who was in the car with him had been subjected to a racist attack, including shouted slurs and aggressive driving, by occupants of the truck.
With the immunity motion, the defense asserted that Wilson acted in defense of himself and the then-girlfriend, who was one of the witnesses who testified last week.
No hearings on the recusal motions had been scheduled as of Monday.