RALEIGH — A Wake County grand jury Tuesday indicted a former District Court judge, a defense lawyer who handles a high volume of drunken driving cases and one of the lawyer’s legal aides – raising questions among some about the narrow focus of what had been billed as a sweeping probe of the handling of DWI cases.
Kristin Ruth, who stepped down as a Wake County District Court judge in May, James Crouch, a Raleigh defense lawyer, and his legal aide, Elizabeth Michelle Daniel, were charged in a case linked to a State Bureau of Investigation probe into the handling of DWI cases over at least the past five years.
Ruth, a District Court judge for 13 years before her resignation, was charged with unlawfully and willfully omitting and neglecting to discharge the duties of her office, a misdemeanor.
Crouch, who was licensed to practice law in North Carolina almost 20 years ago with no public disciplines from the State Bar during that time, was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, one count of altering documents, a felony, and one count of conspiring with Daniel, his legal aide, to obstruct justice.
Daniel was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice with Crouch.
The indictments come several weeks after Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby used an unusual process through which the grand jury heard from an investigator about the cases then asked the county’s top prosecutor to further investigate the matter.
On Tuesday, the grand jury, which holds its proceedings behind closed doors, handed up indictments after hearing from an SBI investigator.
Cases over four years
The accusations stem from the handling of dozens of DWI cases from May 1, 2008, to April 30, 2012.
The State Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry into the matter in February after prosecutors alerted Willoughby to problems with a DWI case handled by Crouch. Willoughby looked into the questions raised by his assistant district attorneys 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.
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, 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 tied to the indictment, 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.
Crouch is not the only lawyer in Wake County to seek “nunc pro tunc” rulings – Latin for “now for then” – that allow the backdating of convictions.
The process allows a judge to backdate a conviction and is often used in benign circumstances to fix clerical errors. The process is typically initiated when a defendant’s attorney files a motion for appropriate relief, which has a space on the form for a prosecutor’s signature.
But in the 40-plus cases linked to the indictments on Tuesday, there is no such paperwork. Almost always, a judge corrects his or her own order, not that of another judge.
That, prosecutors contend, is what sets the Crouch, Ruth and Daniel cases apart from others in Wake County. Ruth was changing orders other judges had entered, and according to investigators, not alerting prosecutors ahead of time about plans to do so.
No more charges foreseen
Willoughby said Tuesday he could not comment about the specific indictments, but the SBI investigation to date had not led him to expect other charges to follow.
“Based on the information I have seen, I would not expect the investigation of nunc pro tunc orders to lead to other persons,” Willoughby said.
Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh attorney representing Crouch, questioned why attempts had not been made first to handle the issue with procedural changes in the courthouse or with complaints to the State Bar, which oversees lawyers in this state.
Cheshire said there was no untoward relationship between Crouch and Ruth. “Nor did anything of any monetary or other value change hands between James Crouch, Judge Ruth or any lawyer’s staff or any court personnel,” Cheshire said.
Cheshire said what typically would have been handled as an ethical issue and questions was now being tried criminally, creating a chilling effect in the courthouse and legal community beyond it.
“When you begin to criminalize judges’ and lawyers’ work in a courthouse,”Cheshire said, “you don’t open up justice for a fairer proceeding, you terrorize and restrict the public’s attempt to get justice.”
Crouch, Cheshire said, has one of the largest traffic practices in Wake County and was a “hard litigator,” often carrying such a high load of cases that he would clog up the court flow by being in another courtroom when a case was called.
Ruth had a reputation as a judge who tried to work with defense lawyers and develop options other than jail for defendants who showed promise for rehabilitation.
“When you have the power to indict the people who have cases against you, that’s a terrifying power and that has a tendency to chill lawyers’ ability to act in their client’s best interest,” Cheshire said.
‘I trusted Mr. Crouch’
Joe Zeszotarski, the Raleigh attorney representing Ruth, declined to comment on the indictments Tuesday. He referred back to a statement she made in May elaborating on her decision to step down from the bench nearly three months after the State Bureau of Investigation began the probe.
Ruth said Crouch misled her when he asked her to sign orders that did not state what he portrayed to her.
“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 in May. “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.”