Judge Lovett Bennett Jr. will not, after all, decide whether his Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Court colleague, Judge Michael T. Muldrew, should be recused from trying William Marcus "Marc" Wilson for murder or from ruling on whether Wilson's lead defense attorney, Francys Johnson, acted in contempt of court last week.
Both Bennett and the circuit's Chief Judge F. Gates Peed signed two orders filed Thursday with the Bulloch County Superior Court clerk's office voluntarily recusing themselves from deciding the recusal motions involving Muldrew. That effectively removes all three of the four-county circuit's regular Superior Court judges from ruling on the recusal motions filed Sept. 23 by Wilson's other attorneys.
Peed and Bennett cited Rule 25.7 of Georgia's Uniform Superior Court Rules, which allows for voluntary recusal of judges. Further citing Rule 25.4, which covers how recusal questions are assigned in various circumstances, they referred the questions to Judge Jeffrey H. Kight, administrative judge of the First Judicial Administrative District, "for further assignment or disposition.”
The Ogeechee Judicial Circuit is one of five circuits in the district, which encompasses 22 counties.
Wilson, now 23, faces charges of felony murder and aggravated assault for the June 14, 2020, death of Haley Hutcheson, 17, shot in the back of the head 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.
No trial has begun, but Muldrew convened a hearing Sept. 22 on a motion 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 morning of Sept. 23, Johnson saw some documents in a notebook handed to him, apparently by mistake, by a judicial assistant to Muldrew, and 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 sheriff’s deputies to take Johnson into custody for contempt of court. But when Muldrew first ordered a deputy to seize the notebook from Johnson, the deputy had done so, Mawuli Davis, another of Wilson’s defense attorneys, stated in an affidavit.
During a pause of several hours in the hearing, Wilson’s other attorneys filed a habeas corpus petition seeking to have Johnson released, plus the motions to have Muldrew recused both from a hearing on whether Johnson behaved in contempt and from further presiding over Wilson’s case and potential trial.
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.
Reconvening Wilson’s hearing briefly at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 23, Muldrew continued it to an undetermined future date. He also ordered Johnson released to await a hearing of his own on the contempt allegation and acknowledged the recusal motions, saying they would be assigned to another judge.
Acting on an order from Muldrew “to randomly reassign” the motions, Bulloch County Superior Court Clerk Heather Banks McNeal had issued notices Friday assigning the recusal questions to Bennett, who was next in the circuit’s rotation. But he and Peed have now passed the questions to Kight.
At this point, the charges against Wilson remain assigned to Muldrew for trial, but Kight can assign the question of whether they stay there to yet another judge.
Johnson has enlisted the services of other attorneys for his defense on the contempt allegation, including S. Lester Tate III of Cartersville as his lead counsel and Patrise Perkins-Hooker of Atlanta as co-counsel. Both are past presidents of the State Bar of Georgia.