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.
Our 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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
In April 2019, we wrote about Jason White, who was framed for a pound of meth by Bartlett detectives and ADA Chris Scruggs, recipient of our first Hammer Award for over-zealous prosecution. White was, until recently, serving 60 years at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Lauderdale County.
White was spirited out of state Monday May 20th in a carefully planned operation.
Jumping ahead a little, it seems clear that Shelby County is ready for a brand new DA in 2022, one that is committed to dismantling Amy Weirich’s system of mass incarceration. Let’s suppose there might be an ad-hoc host committee formed to find the best possible candidate and provide her with the most and best campaign resources we can find.
Daniel Connolly of The Commercial Appeal has recently outed Mike Cross, former Collierville and Shelby prosecutor, and Judge Jim Lammey for racism on social media.
We commend Mr Connolly’s enterprise and, seeing that we have our own research on prosecutorial and other criminal justice misconduct, we decided to follow his lead.
Our criterion for membership of our rogue’s gallery is something an ADA Hammer like Chris Scruggs would appreciate. Three strikes and you’re in for good. When we document three perversions of justice, you get our Hammer Award.
Shelby Co. District Attorney’s office has a hammer award, given to prosecutors who break the rules to get convictions. This is our Hammer Award.
ADA Chris Scruggs
The first recipient of our Hammer Award is Chris Scruggs. He’s a long time prosecutor and has headed up the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, an inter-agency unit, which works with the Multi Agency Gang Unit and its Organized Crime Unit.
Drug prosecutions are especially problematic, as a large part of mass incarceration. There are perverse incentives including civil forfeiture, which engenders corruption, and the imposition of minimum sentencing laws has made this area especially problematic.
Chris Scruggs taken to Federal Court
We first encountered Chris Scruggs in the Federal case taken by April Malone and Celitria Watson against three DAs and three MPD police officers. In this case, Ms Watson had an automated cloud back-up app running on her phone, She was able to prove that the version of a wiretap log of her text messages had been altered by the prosecution and police to add incriminating statements. In addition, a bogus bank Suspicious Activity Report was used to obtain the wiretap warrant. The prosecution team was aware of the fabricated evidence.
Ms Malone and Ms. Watson were able to prove their innocence and their cases were severed and dismissed, but Kendrick Watson, Celitria’s brother and April’s significant other, was given and additional nine years on his sentence using the same fabricated evidence. April’s mother, Patricia Malone, took a misdemeanor plea for time served.
Chris Scruggs and Planted Weed
Our piece on Thorne Peters‘ bust at Imbiblio’s night club describes how Chris Scruggs had to recuse himself from a second trial of Peters and others because of his misconduct in the first case.
In the initial December 2008 raid, some weed which had been thrown down in commonly accessible areas was found, but this was not allowed as evidence because there was no search warrant. The arrest affidavit was altered months later to add a small baggie of weed supposedly found in the cruiser used to transport Peters, and the case was dismissed.
In addition to the evidence tampering, this case showed the abuse of bail. Peters was held on $400K bail and ended up serving 19 months on a charge which had a maximum penalty of less than one year. Peters’ insistence on his day in court called the DA’s bluff. The DA’s expected to plead out, which would make the weakness of their case moot.
Peters was again arrested in July 2009 on the evidence of a confidential informant, Ashley Egan, who was paid $2000 for her testimony. Egan was later sentenced to several terms of imprisonment, was described by her SCSO handlers as a junkie and was a client of the mental health court, which usually requires mental health treatment for its defendants. Chris Scruggs, who had been cited for his role in the 2008 bust, recused himself from this case in October 2010, after the snitch testimony had been given.
Third Strike: Jason White’s case
The 2016 cases of Jason White, Kristina Cole and Montez Mullins is especially egregious. Bartlett police intercepted a package containing a pound of meth, relabeled it with Kristina Cole’s address, got a dubious warrant for the altered address, and busted her. They confiscated her phone and sent some text messages to a phone they thought, but never proved, belonged to her incarcerated boyfriend, Jason White. They subsequently added Montez Mullins, who admitted to organizing the shipment, to the docket. The defendants were sentenced to a total of 113 1/2 years.
The arresting officer testified to the changing of the destination address and the bogus text messages on the stand, so Scruggs, as the prosecutor, would have known these facts while being briefed on the case before trial. Cole and White were innocent bystanders to Mullins’ prison meth distribution scheme.
Chris Scruggs: Congratulations
Chris Scruggs is a deserving recipient of our first Hammer Award.
We will be awarding future Hammer Awards to prosecutors, judges, law enforcement and individuals who get three strikes for overzealous enforcement of mass incarceration.
Updated 5/17/2019: We took the appendix of this book and showed how it could be a questionnaire that a hypothetical selection committee could put to candidates to gauge how committed they are to prosecutorial reform.
“Prosecutors wield extraordinary power in the criminal legal system. How they exercise their power can be the difference between fairness and inequality, justice and corruption, and a community with faith in its justice system or one that feels betrayed by it.”
We don’t usually do book reviews, but Emily Bazelon’s book “Charged. The new movement to transform American prosecution and end mass incarceration” is a phenomenon we can’t ignore. It is a textbook and a case study of how to replace Amy Weirich.
Local DAs are the officials with the most influence over mass incarceration.
We previously reported on the Fair Punishment Project’s report “The Recidivists: New Report on Rates of Prosecutorial Misconduct“. One of the four DAs profiled in the book was Amy Weirich, with an account of six of her cases which had been reversed by appeals courts. Weirich was nailed for repeat Brady violations and due process violations. Amy Weirich was, in 2017, fast becoming the poster child for prosecutorial misconduct.
“Charged” confirms Amy Weirich as the most corrupt champion of mass incarceration in the country. The book is structured as two case histories, one of Amy’s persecution of Nuora Jackson for murdering her mother, and the other following a young Black man, pseudonymously named Kevin, as he wends its way through a diversion program in the Brooklyn office of DA Eric Gonzales, who has slashed mass incarceration since his election.
This is the most complete account of the Nuora Jackson case, and Weirich doubles down on vicious and illegal tactics throughout the case. Jackson eventually took an alford plea after the Tennessee Supreme Court vacated her conviction. Weirich did not have the grace to release Nuora on bail, and, rather than releasing her after ten years, forced her to accept a plea deal to avoid further incarceration. Bazelon forged a close relationship with Nuora Jackson and paints an intimate portrait of a soul in Amy’s hell.
In the midst of alternating through six chapters each on Kevin and Nuora’s cases, Bazelon adds organizational chapters.
The final chapter is a survey of the issues faced by some of the new reform prosecutors and how they were tackled. It’s a troubleshooting guide for reform DAs.
Possibly the most valuable resource in the book is the appendix, a list of 21 principles for Twenty First Century Prosecutors, grouped under the objectives of reducing mass incarceration and increasing fairness in the system. This is a great starting point for a questionnaire for new DA candidates.
This book is a gift to criminal justice advocated in Memphis. It contains a motivational story, potential national sources of support, accounts of the pioneer reform DAs who are already elected and helpful organizational principles.
Amy Weirich is the Public Enemy Number One for national reform advocates, who are well funded.
Jason White was sentenced to 21 years in 1999 for a burglary when he was 18 years old, and, in 2017, was serving the last year of his sentence.
Jason Lamar White was indicted in April, 2016, by the Shelby County grand jury for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine along with his girlfriend, Kristina Cole. Another Riverbend inmate, Montez Mullins, was added to the indictment a year later.
The case was discussed by The Post and Email, on 10/11/2017, 10/17/2017 and 11/16/2017. These posts include case documentation, an interview with Jason’s mother, Kimberly White and extensive phone follow-up by the Post and Email’s Sharon Rondeau.
In Februry 2016, Montez Mullins admitted to Cole’s first attorney, Mark McDaniel, that he had arranged for the shipment of the contraband package.
Fox 13 News reported: “According to the DA’s Office, Mullins said Cole and White knew nothing about the drug delivery. He claimed a Hispanic man he met in prison gave him an address as a good place to deliver drugs in the Memphis area.
Mullins also said he told Cole that the FedEx package contained jewelry intended for his mother, according to investigators”.
Kristina Cole is a mother of three who was 43 at the time of her arrest in February 2016. Her previous record was pristine. She is Jason White’s girlfriend.
The package in this case contained about a pound of crystal methamphetamine and some baby clothes. It was presented to FedEx as shipment number 808857073374 at a FedEx retail outlet in Visalia, California. FedEx opened the package and called Detective Collins, who took custody of the package.
The original FedEx label was given in evidence, and the address, on the label is 2552 Linwood Road, Bartlett, TN 38134. It is marked for “Standard Overnight” service, which is FedEx’s next afternoon service. The label is in the customary format produced by FedEx’s shipping software.
Package was Intercepted.
Detective Collins picked up the package, contacted the Bartlett police, overpacked it in a UPS box and sent it to Bartlett Police Department. There, Detective Mark Gaia obtained a search warrant for a different address than was on the original FedEx label. He used 2552 Jenwood Street, Kristina Cole’s address.
Bartlett detectives then relabeled the package with Cole’s address.
Detective Collins did not testify and so could not be questioned on the origination of the package.
Delivery of the Package.
The package was left on Cole’s porch and the search warrant served after Cole took it in. The package was found unopened inside the front door and a number of electronic items confiscated in the search, including Kristina Cole’s phones and laptop.
The planted text messages.
The prosecution later asserted that Kristina Cole sent Jason White a text message confirming the arrival of the shipment. The text messages on her phone were created during the time she was in custody at the Bartlett police station.
From the Post and Email documents, the record of arrest on page 8 shows an arrest time of 3:30 PM. On page 11, the phone text log shows the “incriminating” text messages going out between 3:38 PM and 4:26 PM. By that time Kristin Cole and her phones were in custody.
Detective Gaia admitted on the stand, under cross examination by Cole’s attorney, Kortney Simmons, at trial, that he had sent at least some of those text messages.
In addition, the destination of the text messages, (615) 917-3749 was never proven to be a contraband cell phone in the possession of Jason White. Currently (on 4/15/2019) the number gives an “unavailable” signal. “A TDOC officer claimed that he saw (Jason) flush a phone in prison, but he showed no evidence during the trial to connect Jason White to the number”. This is confirmed in White’s appeal.
The TDOC officer in question was later fired for bringing contraband phones into the prison.
Chris Scruggs, the prosecutor, lied during the trial, alleging that he had not heard of Montez Mullins’ involvement in the case until “this year” (2017), even though Cole’s then attorney, Mark McDaniels, who had talked to Chris Scruggs and told him about Montez Mullins at the discovery point after she was arrested in February 2016.
Scruggs is one of the problem ADAs we have encountered. He is one of the defendants in April Malone and Celitria Watson’s federal suit alleging that Scruggs participated in the alteration of wiretap evidence and in hiding exculpatory evidence from the defense. He also recused himself from Thorne Peters’ case after fictional evidence of weed found in the cruiser which transported was added to the case documents more than four months after the arrest.
Scruggs is second only to Amy Weirich herself on MemphisTruth.org’s list of problem prosecutors.
Judge Robert Carter presided over the trial.
Defense Counsel issues.
The defendants had issues with their counsel.
Attorney Claiborne Ferguson, White’s attorney complained that Jason White assaulted him at 201 Poplar on 7/10/2017. The incident report is in the Post and Email documents, on pages 2 through 14. The reporting officer said that no-one saw White choking Ferguson, as he had alleged, his clothing was undisturbed and there were not marks of violence. Deputies concluded that no assault had taken place. White had just informed Ferguson that he was firing him as attorney. This is confirmed in White’s appeal.
White attempted to have Ferguson removed as counsel, and act pro-se but the judge would not allow it. The constitutional right of a defendant to defend himself was violated. White eventually fired Ferguson at sentencing time. White’s previous attorneys were Blake Ballon, and Jeff Mueller.
Kristina Cole hired first Mark McDaniel and then Michael Scholls, fired them both and reported them to the Board of Professional Responsibility. She went to court with Kortney Simmons, hired from Jackson because she could not find a local attorney to take the case.
Other Prosecutorial Midconduct
Prosecutors are not allowed to make derogatory remarks or epithets about defendants at trial. During Cole’s trial, Chris Scruggs said that Kristina looked like “a pig for the Junk Yard Dog”. This was a reference to the prison gang, the Junk Yard Dogs, of which Jason White was a leading member in Riverbend prison.