Hammer Award: Judge Chris Craft

The DA’s office, long before Amy Weirich’s regime, has owned the Hammer Award.   We’ll be awarding our Hammer Award to judges as well as prosecutors.

chris_craft
Judge Chris Craft

 

hammerawardOur June award winner is Judge Chris Craft, Shelby Criminal Court Division VIII.    We outline his bio towards the end of this piece, but right now we’re going to jump into why Craft gets the Hammer Award.

 

Craft’s Crowning Achievement:  Nuora Jackson

nuora
Nuora Jackson

Chris Craft played a leading role in the false imprisonment of Nuora Jackson.  Emily Bazelon, in her book “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration” spends six chapters examining Jackson’s agonizing journey through the legal system.   Amy Weirich was the prosecutor in her 2009 trial, and hid exculpatory evidence in a Brady violation

During her closing argument, Weirich said “Just tell us where you were, that’s all we are asking, Nuora”.   This was a reference to an unexplained hour in the timeline of the night of the murder, and the fact that Nuora had not taken the stand during the trial.  Jackson’s attorney, Valerie Corder, objected on the basis that the prosecution is not allowed to use a defendant’s constitutional right not to testify as a sign of guilt.

Judge Chris Craft refused a mistrial.   In Nuora’s 2013 Supreme Court appeal, Corder played a five second video of Weirich charging across the courtroom at Jackson with her demand for testimony, and the supreme court justices wanted to see it again.   This, and a note which was “disappeared” from the evidence, formed the basis for Jackson’s eventual retrial.     Chris Craft bent over backwards to allow Weirich’s obvious malpractice.    Weirich eventually received a “private reprimand” from the Board for Professional Responsibility for her malpractice in this case.

In the Tennessee Supreme Court’s judgement, Given that the impropriety of any comment upon a defendant’s exercise of the Fifth Amendment right not to testify is so well settled as to require little discussion, it is not at all clear why any prosecutor would venture into this forbidden territory”.   

It is also not clear why any judge would allow it. 

The Earley Story case.

Earley_Story_H&S
Earley Story

Earley Story is a former Shelby County Deputy Sergeant jailer who was framed for the sale of marijuana on the basis of evidence by a paid confidential informant, in reprisal for blowing the whistle on conditions at the 201 Poplar jail.  After his 1998 conviction, Story, though he served no time, has constantly tried to assert his innocence.

Earley Story has a motion for a writ of “Error Coram Nobis” currently in Chris Craft’s Division VIII.   He filed a motion for Judge Craft to recuse himself.   The Post and Email blog details Story’s grounds for recusal.  “In February, Story was granted a hearing in Division VIII, where Judge Chris Craft presides.  In 2004, Craft denied Story’s post-conviction appeal; he also sentenced Story to ten days in jail after finding him in “contempt of court” for allegedly interrupting him in the courtroom.   Story has questioned not only Craft’s neutrality, but also why his recent request for a case review was not assigned to Division III, in accordance with Tennessee law, rather than in Division VIII.

Given Craft’s previous involvement, including his misrepresentation of Story as having accepted a guilty plea at a hearing of the private parole board to which Story’s case was sent.   Story has also sued Craft for alleged improprieties in the handling of his probation.

We were in court for Story’s February 11th, 2019 appearance in Craft’s court.   This was their first interaction, from my notes:

Judge Chris Craft: Do you have an attorney?
Earley Story: No
Judge Chris Craft: No What?
Earley Story: No Sir
Judge Chris Craft: No What?
Earley Story: No Sir Your Honor.
Judge Chris Craft: No What? Are you answering “is it raining”.
Earley Story: You asked if I have an attorney.
Judge Chris Craft: Sit down. (mumbles something) I’ll find you in contempt of court.

Considering that Judge Craft had sentenced Earley Story to ten days for contempt in 2004, we are inclined to take this threat at face value.

Michael Rimmer

Rimmer
Michael Rimmer

Michael Rimmer was sentenced to death three times for an alleged 1998 murder.   Chris Craft presided over the 2016 retrial. and third death sentence.

He was granted a new trial in December 2013 because Thomas Henderson, a high-placed, veteran attorney in the Shelby County District Attorney’s office, did not give relevant evidence to Rimmer’s defense attorneys, a Brady violation.  The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Office of Professional Responsibility ordered a public censure of Henderson.

This case was documented in the 2017 Fair Punishment Project report.

Kendrick Watson

kendrick
Kendrick Watson

We saw the story of Kendrick Watson when we wrote about Celitria Watson, his sister, and April Malone, his significant other.   They were co-defendants in one of his cases.   A wiretap report, obtained under a warrant for Kendrick’s phone, was falsified by police and prosecutors.   This resulted in April and Celitria’s cases being severed from Kendricks, and dismissed.   Nonetheless, reports from this wiretap were used against Kendrick, and April and Celitria’s proof of evidence fabrication was not allowed in court.

Kendrick Watson had other issues with the legitimacy of the wiretap warrants, including a warrantless search of the phones of his associates following a traffic stop and some questions relating to a bank report used to obtain the warrant.

Perhaps this is a natural consequence of judges policing each other in a cozy manner, but Chris Craft, as the presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary, rejected Kendrick Watson’s complaint against Judge Lee Coffee, despite Coffee’s acceptance of tainted evidence.

Charles Thompson

Thompson was a shot-caller for the Traveling Vice Lords who was accused of ordering the killing of Deputy Deadrick Taylor in April 1996.   This appears to be part of a spike of deputy killings that happened around the time that a massive Jobs for Cash conspiracy was being revealed by an FBI inquiry and subsequent Federal trial of two of the conspirators.   Thompson was being held on a separate charge in 201 Poplar at the time he is supposed to have ordered the murder of the deputy.

Judge Chris Craft presided over Thompson’s conviction on docket 96 11968-96621546.

Thompson was mysteriously transferred under the Interstate Prisoner Transfer Compact and he is now believed to be in a Federal institution in Arkansas.   Charles Thompson had a close association with Jason White, his deputy in a prison gang.   White, while still in prison under a previous sentence, was framed on a planted meth bust, given an additional 60 year sentence, and, a few weeks ago, spirited away on another interstate prisoner transfer to a distant state.

Just City Court Watch Blog describes Craft interaction.

An extract from the Just City Court Watch Blog.

201_poplar“April 10th, 2019 – An attorney believed to be representing the defendant pointed his finger at her and said, “Keep quiet!” as she was attempting to speak to Judge Craft and request a new attorney. When it came time for her case, the defendant wanted to be heard. After her attorney painted her as mentally incompetent, Judge Craft let her speak. She explained that there had been no communication between her and her attorney, and that she’s being ignored. As you can imagine, this is her only opportunity to advocate for herself — particularly since her attorney wasn’t. She had a difficult time staying quiet, but was never disrespectful in my opinion. After Judge Craft heard her out, there was more she wanted to say. However Judge Craft appeared annoyed at this point and said, “I’ll give you 10 days in jail for every word you say”. The defendant was quiet.”

Earley Story describes Craft intimidation

We previously saw a description of Judge Craft’s interrogation of Earley Story.  In conversation with Mr. Story, he described an interaction with Craft during the case when Craft sentenced Story to ten days for contempt.

Judge Craft would say something, then pause.   If Mr Story waited for the judge to continue, he was chided for being non-responsive.   If Mr Story spoke during the pause, Judge Craft would continue and accuse Mr Story of interrupting.

This is an excellent way of intimidating pro-se defendants, whether or not this effect is intended.

Biographical Details

Edited from noethics.net with additional details from the Daily News.

Chris Craft received his law license from the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1978 after graduating from Memphis State University.  From 1980 to 1982 he did graduate work at Memphis Theological Seminary in Law and Religion.
From 1978 to 1982 he practiced as a defense lawyer in the family firm.
Beginning in 1982 through 1994, Craft was employed as an assistant prosecutor in the Shelby County DA’s office. In 1994 he was appointed as a judge.
Chris Craft was appointed to Judge of Division VIII of the Shelby County Criminal Court in 1994 and was elected to that position in 1996.   He has been re-elected for eight year terms ever since, most recently in 2014, when he was unopposed.    He is next up for election in 2022.
In August 2011, Judge Craft was elected as the presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary. In a lame attempt at levity in responding to Sen. Beavers’ legislation, Judge Craft said, “It’s kind of hard for laypersons to understand the code of judicial conduct.”
This hyperbolic comment doesn’t pass the involuntary laugh test. Anyone could easily understand the mandates of the code of conduct.
Chris Craft is an elder and Sunday school teacher at Second Presbyterian Church and frequently extols the virtues of faith-based organizations.

The Hammer Award.

Judge Chris Craft, as a former prosecutor, is one of a number of judges who are former prosecutors.    We believe that exposure to the corrupt culture of the Shelby County DA’s office is a red flag.  We are following several other judges in that category.

hammeraward
May 2019 Honoree Judge Chris Craft

Updates:  Chris Craft dismisses Earley Story’s writ of error coram nobis. 

Chris Craft named in article on class action suit against probation business.

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