RALEIGH — Wake County District Court Judge Kristin Ruth has been pulled from presiding over criminal cases as the State Bureau of Investigation looks into her handling of a dozen DWI cases.
The inquiry was prompted by Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who began looking into driving while impaired cases after a prosecutor in his office raised concerns about a case handled by a different district court judge.
Willoughby said in a recent letter to Donald Stephens, Wake County's chief resident superior court judge, that his quick review of some recent cases revealed a "disturbing pattern of what may be unauthorized and illegal judgments."
Stephens then alerted the State Bureau of Investigation and Robert Rader, Wake County's chief district court judge.
Ruth said Monday she learned about the inquiry last week and plans to cooperate fully with investigators.
"I understand there's an investigation relating to several orders on which my name appears," Ruth said.
She declined to make further comment, saying: "I don't want there to be any possibility that my statements will interfere with the work of the investigators."
Ruth, a Campbell University law school graduate, has been a Wake County district court judge since 1998. She was elected vice president of the N.C. Bar Association in 2010.
In 2008 she made an unsuccessful bid for the state Court of Appeals, finishing second to Sam J. Ervin IV.
Conviction dates are key
At issue in the SBI inquiry is whether she knowingly changed conviction dates on cases that came back to her after defendants withdrew their appeals to superior court.
In the 12 cases that prompted the SBI investigation, Willoughby said in his letter to Stephens that each case started in district court, where there was a conviction. Then an appeal was filed in superior court.
Those appeals were withdrawn while the cases were pending, according to Willoughby's study, then sent back to district court for re-sentencing.
In each case, Willoughby said, Ruth was not involved in either the initial verdict or re-sentencing.
The orders entered under her name, Willoughby said, change the effective date of the judgment.
"While the full extent of the motives or implications of these changes in the dates of convictions are not clear to me," Willoughby said in his letter, it appeared to him that a change in conviction date could shorten how long a defendant's driver's license was suspended, if at all.
Stephens sent a response to Willoughby, dated Feb. 20, saying it was "incumbent" for him to call for a thorough investigation.
"There may be a totally innocent explanation for this conduct, however from the face of the court files as documented I can think of none," Stephens said in his letter to Willoughby. "If these orders were knowingly entered, they could constitute evidence of misconduct, including an attempt to obstruct criminal justice. This type of alleged irregularity brings into question the integrity of the court system."
Willoughby stated in his letter that he did not know how pervasive the practice was.
"Because of the limited nature of my search, I do not know how widespread this or other irregularities might be, nor how many cases may be in a similar status," Willoughby said. "I have talked with the prosecutors in District Court and none of them were aware of this activity."
Further, Willoughby said, it was unclear whether the defendants themselves were knowingly involved in the process.
"While on the surface, this activity appears to be a contradiction of the rules, law and justice, I am mindful that the district attorney in a neighboring district is in the process of being removed from office for her allegations in pleadings that a judge had acted inappropriately," Willoughby said.
He was referring to the rare process underway in Durham where District Attorney Tracey Cline faces possible removal from office for, in part, comments she made about a judge in public pleadings.
Willoughby's inquiry began after prosecutors in his office alerted him to the case of a teenager arrested in December and charged with driving while impaired and other traffic offenses.
Problems in Horne case
The defendant in that case was Henry Horne, the 16-year-old son of a Raleigh lawyer. James Crouch, a Raleigh lawyer who handles many DWI cases, represented the teen in a case that started in district court, was appealed in superior court but sent back to district court.
Willoughby, in an unusual motion accusing the lawyer of misleading a judge and prosecutor, said the case was moved up on the calendar without consent from his office.
It is not unusual for prosecutors and judges to stand in for each other in district court, where each day brings a high volume of cases.
In this case, Willoughby said the change meant a prosecutor trying to quickly familiarize herself with the case realized only at the last minute that a 17-year-old passenger was in the car with Horne at the time of his arrest. That can mean a stiffer sentence, and that was brushed over, Willoughby said, by the defense attorney and judge.
That case, now set for mid-March, provoked Willoughby to pull a box of cases several weeks ago and delve further into the handling of DWIs.
Efforts to reach Crouch have been unsuccessful in recent weeks. But Joe Cheshire, a Raleigh lawyer representing him, said judgment should be withheld until all the facts are in.