Judge rules English should have removed himself, Cornwell should have informed her client defendants
Five criminal defendants in four high-profile cases will receive new trials because of the illicit sexual affair between former Superior Court Judge Paschal A. English and then public defender attorney Kimberly Cornwell. The affair was exposed in late spring 2010.
None of the defendants was ever told of the affair between English, the trial judge on all four cases and Cornwell, who represented four of the five defendants in each case, according to an order from guest Judge Harold G. Benefield.
The ruling directly refutes the June 9, 2010 assertion by District Attorney Scott Ballard that the affair had no effect on any defendants.
“We are aware of 225 cases in which Mrs. Cornwell represented criminal defendants in front of Judge English after they were discovered together by the deputy. They are listed in the report. While it is not our determination to make, none of the current employees of my office or of the Circuit Public Defender’s Office hold the opinion that any defendants were prejudiced by whatever relationship existed between the judge and the lawyer,” Ballard said at the time of the scandal in late spring of 2010.
The defendants granted new trials were:
• Christopher Deangelo Wakefield and Travion Marquez Willis, co-defendants found guilty of five felony counts including armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a carjacking incident in Fayetteville. English had sentenced them both to life in prison plus an additional 20 years;
• Calvin Obie Boynton, found guilty of armed robbery, aggravated assault and other charges from a May 2009 bank robbery in Peachtree City. English had sentenced him to life plus 30 years in prison;
• William Jacob Nutt, found guilty of aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery for raping a relative days after he got out of prison. English had sentenced him to life in prison; and
• Rashad Terrez Arnold, found guilty of burglary. English had sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
The Fayette County District Attorney’s Office has filed an appeal asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to overturn Benefield’s order, but a final decision on the matter is likely to take months. In the meantime, there is the substantial likelihood that the DA’s office will have to re-try all five defendants, who are currently serving time in Georgia prisons.
Not only should Judge English have recused himself from the trials, Bennett wrote, but he also could have been “involuntarily removed” from them because of the affair, which was substantiated Oct. 13, 2008 when a Fayette County sheriff’s deputy discovered English and Cornwell engaged in sexual intercourse in a parked vehicle though both were married to others at the time.
Cornwell likewise had a duty to disclose the relationship and failed to do so, Benefield said in the order granting new trials.
“The client is entitled to know, without doubt, that it is his interests which the lawyer is seeking to protect and not those of herself and her lover-judge,” Benefield wrote.
In his order, Benefield gave an example of how the relationship between Judge English and Cornwell could have created bias against defendants at trial. He notes the case against Travion Willis, represented by Cornwell and co-defendant Christopher Wakefield.
That trial took place “less than one month after the judge and attorney were caught having sex,” Benefield wrote, noting that English denied a continuance to Wakefield even though his attorney had been involved in the case for just two weeks.
“One might also wonder if the judge’s failure to have charged the jury on the basic and critical principle that their decision must be unanimous, as the trial transcript reveals, was in some way attributable to his own emotional instability given the wave of infamy which might at any moment have swept over him, as it ultimately did. One simply cannot know,” Benefield wrote.
English’s credibility has also been called into question for perhaps being too light in one case, as he gave a 10-year prison sentence to Rashad Terrez Arnold in the burglary case despite a previous conviction for a violent felony: aggravated assault.
“With an aggravated assault and other felonies, I am just kind of surprised that he didn’t get 20 years to serve,” Fayette County Superior Court Judge Fletcher Sams said in a court hearing earlier this year on the motions for new trial in the case. Sams later recused himself from considering the motions and Benefield was appointed to hear the matter.
Benefield was distressed in arriving at the decision to grant the new trial requests in part, he wrote, because it was clear to him from the trial transcripts that “the evidence which was given to the juries was more, far more than sufficient to support verdicts of guilty.”
Benefield also noted the fact that jurors were inconvenienced but he was also concerned about the effect new trials would have on the victims in the case, including one who suffered “horrible physical and emotional damage” from the trauma of the crime “and the personal horror of having to confront the defendant in court and relive the event through her testimony.”
“Upon the review of my decision, other judges may hold that I am wrong. And if they do, I cannot say that I would be entirely displeased,” Benefield concluded.
English retired immediately from the bench before the affair came to light, and no disciplinary proceedings have ever been brought against him. He has made no comment publicly since his resignation.