Nearly 100 attorneys, mostly from Georgia, were listed as having signed onto a letter last week expressing support for defense attorney Francys Johnson of Statesboro over his being ordered from the courtroom by Judge Michael Muldrew and held in detention during a September immunity hearing for murder defendant William Marcus “Marc” Wilson.
What occurred last Friday in Bulloch County Superior Court was not a hearing on Muldrew’s contempt of court allegation against Johnson. Instead, what Senior Judge Michael Karpf convened at 9:30 a.m. and recessed a little over an hour later was a hearing on a motion from Wilson’s defense team to have Muldrew recused from presiding further in Wilson’s case. Wilson, now 23, faces a charge of felony murder and charges of aggravated assault for the June 14, 2020, shooting that took the life Haley Hutcheson, 17, while both were in moving vehicles on Veterans Memorial Parkway in Statesboro.
Muldrew had presided at a hearing Sept. 22-23 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.
On Sept. 23, the defense attorneys reported seeing some documents in a notebook that had been handed to them, 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, for proper chain of custody.
On Muldrew’s instructions, a deputy or bailiff seized the notebook from Johnson. Soon after that, Muldrew ordered deputies to remove Johnson from the courtroom, and he was detained in another area of the Bulloch County Judicial Annex for six hours that day.
As received by the Statesboro Herald, the letter dated Nov. 19 carrying the names of 98 attorneys – many of them identifiable as defense attorneys from around Georgia, and several representing civil rights organizations – was addressed to Johnson at Davis Bozeman Johnson Law. It was distributed to reporters by organizers of a Friday noon press conference in front of the Judicial Annex.
“As members of the legal community, we are quite troubled that you were detained in Bulloch County in the course of zealously defending your client in a felony case,” the letter begins. “We represent no party in the case; instead, as Georgia citizens and/or defenders of the Constitution, we express our support for you and our concern about any proceeding that results in the detention of Black attorneys without justification.”
The letter states that its signers understood that a hearing “related to” Johnson’s detention would be held that morning, Friday, Nov. 19, and that many would be there to show support in person.
But Karpf announced at the start of Friday’s hearing that a habeas corpus petition Wilson’s attorneys filed seeking to have the Bulloch County sheriff release Johnson on Sept. 23 had been dismissed. Muldrew had, in fact, ordered Johnson’s release that same day before recessing Wilson’s immunity hearing to an undetermined date.
Karpf added that the matter of Johnson’s being held in contempt of court was “not on the calendar” for him to consider Friday. He noted that an appeal of the contempt order is now awaiting consideration by the Georgia Court of Appeals. Johnson has two former State Bar of Georgia presidents, S. Lester Tate III and Patrise Perkins-Hooker, representing him in the appeal, placed on the docket Nov. 10 and listed as on the Appeals Court calendar for February.
However, Karpf is supposed to decide whether Muldrew should be recused from the Wilson case, and Muldrew’s actions leading up to and including Johnson’s detention were the original reason that another of Wilson’s attorneys, Mawuli Davis, cited for filing the original Sept. 23 recusal motion.
Davis asserted that the judge had 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. In a supplemental affidavit filed last Thursday night, Davis also cited other details of Muldrew’s handling of the immunity hearing.
The letter in support of Johnson was not part of any court filings. Its text is two paragraphs long, on one page, but the list of signatory attorneys occupies four more pages.
“Further, we applaud your courage and unwavering strength in the face of being incarcerated for over six hours on September 23, 2021, over your efforts to document the record regarding ex parte communications,” the second paragraph begins.
The possibility of being incarcerated in this way “has a chilling effect on every lawyer who secures the constitutional rights of Georgia citizens through zealous representation. We salute your professionalism and stand with you in support,” the letter concludes.
Two of the lawyers who signed, Miguel A. Dominguez, a civil rights attorney from the Atlanta offices of Morgan & Morgan, and Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, from Lawrence & Bundy LLC, also based in Atlanta, spoke during the outdoor press conference.
“I thought that it was critical that I be a part of the lawyers from Atlanta and the rest of the state of Georgia and be here today to stand with the Wilson family but also, almost more importantly, with the legal team of the Wilson family and the legal representation that they’re entitled to,” Dominguez said. “The behaviors that have been displayed, directed against the legal team of Mr. Wilson should cause all lawyers and citizens of this state much concern about the type of justice that is available in Bulloch County today, in 2021.”
He said Johnson had been taken into custody and held against his will “merely for attempting to perfect the record.”
Lawrence-Hardy introduced the letter before reading it aloud.
“I’m here to express in particular the support of over 100 lawyers in our state and in our country who have been inspired and frankly honored by the professionalism of Francys Johnson, counsel for Mr. Wilson,” Lawrence-Hardy said.
The printout received by the Statesboro Herald listed 98 individual attorney’s names.
At least two Statesboro-based attorneys, Michael J. Classens of Classens Law and Susan W. Cox of Edenfield, Cox & Bruce, were listed as having signed.
In a phone interview Monday, Classens confirmed that he had agreed to sign the letter. He said he had also sent a note stating that what he was supporting is the right of all criminal defense attorneys to represent their clients fully but that he wanted to make sure that his signing the letter was not taken as a criticism of Muldrew.
Classens noted that he was not in the courtroom Sept. 23 and did not see what happened. He said he has nothing negative to say about the judge.
“I have never seen any evidence of any racially motivated animus in anything Judge Muldrew has done, but I do support all criminal defense attorneys in the defense of their clients,” Classens said.
After the reporter noted the contents of the letter, Classens added that he would not have included the word “Black” but did not quibble over the wording.
“Again, the idea is a criminal defense lawyer must be afforded the opportunity to represent their client,” he said. “I support that without any reservation. I do not distinguish between Black attorneys and white attorneys in any context.”
Cox was away from her office Monday and was not reached for comment.
Members of Marc Wilson’s family also participated in the media conference. Tiffany Roberts, policy counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, had introduced the conference on behalf of the JustGeorgia Coalition, and spoke about its support for obtaining Wilson’s release and a fair trial.