Grand jury calls for further investigation into Wake DWI cases

Further investigation requested of DWI cases

ablythe@newsobserver.comJune 5, 2012 

— A Wake County grand jury has asked the district attorney to investigate possible charges against a former district court judge, a defense attorney and two legal assistants who have been the subject of an SBI probe into their handling of DWI cases.

Kristin Ruth, a former Wake County district court judge; James Crouch, a Raleigh defense attorney who handles a high volume of traffic cases; and two legal aides for Crouch – Elizabeth Michelle Daniel and Christina Nicole Daniel – are listed on grand jury reports made public on Tuesday.

The grand jury, whose proceedings are not public, took part in an unusual process, a presentment, in which the members called for further investigation of the case.

Ruth, a district court judge in Wake County for 13 years, resigned last month amid the SBI investigation into her handling of at least a dozen DWI cases.

In a statement issued last month by her attorney, Joe Zeszotarski, Ruth elaborated on why she chose to step aside nearly three months after the State Bureau of Investigation began a probe into the matter. Zeszotarski said on Tuesday that Ruth was continuing to cooperate with the investigation and her statement of last month stood.

Ruth said Crouch misled her when he asked her to sign orders that did not state what he portrayed to her. “I trusted the wrong person,” she said.

The SBI inquiry began in February after prosecutors alerted Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby to problems with a DWI case handled by Crouch. Willoughby looked into the matter and flagged a dozen questionable DWI cases in which Ruth’s signature was on orders changing conviction dates. Crouch was the attorney on each case.

Willoughby alerted Donald Stephens, Wake’s chief resident Superior Court judge, who then contacted the SBI, which sent an investigator to the Wake County grand jury proceedings this week.

Willoughby said Tuesday he did not know whether charges would be filed, but added: “Certainly the grand jury has spoken and they believe there is probable cause.”

Unusual path to grand jury

Crouch has declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations. But his lawyer, Joseph B. Cheshire V, commented on Tuesday about the unusual route the case took to the grand jury.

“While we are surprised at this unusual procedural step by the district attorney, a presentment is not a criminal charge.” Cheshire said. “As the investigation is ongoing, we will have no comment other than to urge people who follow this news to withhold judgment until all facts are known.”

Ruth had few kind words for Crouch in the statement issued last month by her attorney.

“As a result of the investigation, it has come to my attention that I signed numerous orders for Mr. Crouch that I should not have signed,” Ruth stated. “I must admit that, because I trusted Mr. Crouch, I did not read the orders that were presented to me. Had I read the orders, I would not have signed them. Mr. Crouch, as an officer of the court, should not have presented inappropriate orders to me for signature.”

Her statement further contended that Crouch told her shortly after she learned about some of the facts related to the orders that he had violated her trust and that he would clear her name with the district attorney.

“To date, he has taken no such action,” Ruth said. “As a result of my inattention in failing to read the orders before I signed them, I believe my resignation is necessary to maintain the integrity of the judicial system. I trusted the wrong person, but that does not excuse not reading the orders before I signed them.”

How cases came to light

DWI convictions carry heavy penalties. Those convicted lose their driver’s license for a year. But if a defendant appeals his DWI conviction to Superior Court, that license suspension doesn’t kick in until the case is formally resolved.

Often, as with the 12 cases being investigated, defendants eventually give up their appeal in Superior Court and head back to District Court for sentencing. The year of license suspension is supposed to kick in when the defendant returns to District Court for sentencing.

But in the cases being investigated, the documents showed that Ruth overruled another judge’s conviction dates. The new dates were many months, sometimes a year, prior. The effect of those decisions could have meant a sparing of a license suspension or a shortened time without a license.

The Division of Motor Vehicles, which is alerted to convictions that result in license suspensions, noticed an irregularity in some cases and notified Willoughby.

Willoughby already was looking into the handling of one of Crouch’s case after his assistant district attorneys complained. As the district attorney investigated the cases flagged by DMV, Ruth’s signature was on many of them.

“Although my misguided trust of Mr. Crouch has resulted in my resignation, it should not reflect on the integrity of the judicial system of Wake County or the State of North Carolina,” Ruth said in her statement last month. “I accept my responsibility in contributing to this problem, and feel it necessary, although with great regret, to resign.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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