Former Wake judge pleads guilty on altered DWI cases

Plea deal lets former judge avoid jail time

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 30, 2012 

Judge Kristin Ruth

CCBI

  • The story so far In February, the State Bureau of Investigation began an inquiry to the handling of some DWI cases after Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby alerted Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens about suspect cases. In May, Kristin Ruth resigned as Wake County district court judge after 13 years on the bench. In June, Ruth was charged with unlawfully and willfully omitting and neglecting to discharge the duties of her office, a misdemeanor. She pleaded guilty Monday as part of a plea arrangement with prosecutors in which she pledged to help investigators. James Crouch was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice, one count of altering documents, a felony, and one count of conspiring with Elizabeth Daniel, his legal aide, to obstruct justice. Daniel, Crouch’s paralegal, was charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice with Crouch.

— As a Wake District Court judge, Kristin Ruth presided over thousands of cases, but on Monday in Superior Court she took on two other courtroom roles – a defendant and, by her account, a victim.

Ruth, who stepped down in May after 13 years on the bench, appeared in court to plead guilty to failing to discharge the duties of her office in connection to her handling of 60 DWI cases over the past four years.

In a courtroom packed with teary-eyed supporters, the former judge took the stand and acknowledged that she had signed dozens of orders that she had not fully read for defense attorney James Crouch or his paralegal, Elizabeth Daniel. Ruth’s entering of the judgments outside the presence of prosecutors allowed DWI defendants to avoid license suspensions or the full repercussions of a conviction.

The former judge’s case and the felony charges that Crouch, a former Campbell University law school classmate of Ruth’s, and Daniel face have cast a somber mood over the Wake County courthouse.

Ruth, 55, described herself as a “farm girl” from Salina, Kan., who had her dream job until May, when she resigned from the bench amid an SBI investigation into the DWI cases. She was emotional as she described how she found out about the problems that thrust her into criminal court as a defendant.

Learning whom to trust

Ruth testified that Crouch, a defense attorney she first got to know in law school, abused her trusting nature. She said Crouch or his paralegal would slip orders into a stack of court documents for her to sign in which she backdated convictions.

“I absolutely trusted James Crouch,” Ruth said. “I had no reason not to trust him.”

Ruth, after law school and a brief stint in private practice doing family law mostly, also got to know Crouch’s wife, also a lawyer, and his in-laws, fellow horse lovers.

They got together only occasionally socially. Theirs was not the kind of relationship in which the couples would exchange presents for birthdays or the holidays, Ruth’s attorney said. But with the high volume of cases in District Court, some 200,000 a year in criminal traffic court, Ruth said judges develop a sense of which lawyers to trust.

“We have to have that trust because of the number of orders we deal with on a daily basis,” Ruth said.

At 5:30 p.m. Feb. 20, Ruth said she discovered that she had not been as aware as she should have been.

Judge Robert B. Rader, chief Wake County district court judge, called her to his office and asked her about some unusual DWI cases that had been flagged first by the state Division of Motor Vehicles, then the state attorney general, then Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby. Willoughby took his concerns to Judge Donald Stephens, the chief resident Superior Court judge, who ultimately presided over her criminal case.

Ruth said she left Rader’s office and contacted Crouch immediately to find out what happened in the suspect cases.

“He said he had violated my trust and that I would hate him and never speak to him again,” Ruth testified. “He said he didn’t know why he did it.”

Ruth testified that Crouch told her he worried about being disbarred, about losing his family and ending up in the penitentiary.

In each case listed in the indictments for Ruth, Crouch and Daniel, there was a judge’s ruling with a “nunc pro tunc” – a Latin phrase meaning “now for then” that offers an opening to retroactively change the date of an order, judgment or document filing.

That procedure, legal experts say, was designed to fix clerical errors. But an analysis by The News & Observer has shown that nunc pro tuncs have been used in at least 273 Wake County DWI cases during the past five years with numerous defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges agreeing to them.

Prosecutors weren’t aware

What separated the cases in the indictments from others, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has said, was that in each it appeared the changes to conviction dates were made out of court without prosecutors’ agreement or awareness. In each case, too, the judge changed another judge’s order, Willoughby said.

Ruth said Monday that Crouch told her in February that he would go to Willoughby and explain what happened. But that never happened.

Rader testified Monday that Ruth called him on his cellphone several hours after their late afternoon meeting Feb. 20. As concerned as she was about what happened in the cases, Ruth was just as worried about Crouch’s well-being, Rader said.

Crouch, who handles a high volume of drunken-driving cases, has declined to comment on the case.

Joseph B. Cheshire V, the Raleigh attorney representing him, was in the courtroom Monday. The courtroom gallery broke into applause when Stephens said the incident had caused Wake County to lose a good judge.

“I thought this was one of the most unnecessary prosecutions of one of the finest people I know,” Cheshire said afterward.

Cheshire and other lawyers have questioned why Willoughby chose to pursue the cases criminally instead of seeking procedural changes in the courthouse or issuing complaints to the State Bar, which oversees lawyers in this state.

‘Judge that made a difference’

Ruth became a District Court judge in 1998, and through the years gained a reputation as a community-spirited judge who tried to work with defense lawyers to develop options other than jail for defendants who showed promise for rehabilitation.

In family court, she developed programs for fathers accused of not paying child support that allowed them to get employment counseling and go through other treatments in exchange for jail time that would have further delayed their ability to earn money and make payments.

Ruth, a former flight attendant whose husband underwent quadruple bypass surgery weeks ago, said her goal when elected was to be a “judge that made a difference.”

“I’m a farm girl from Kansas,” she said in a soft voice choked with emotion. “Who would have thought that I could have been a judge in Wake County.”

Stephens said Ruth became “a victim of her own trusting nature.”

Ruth, who acknowledged her responsibility in not reading the orders, abandoned her role as gatekeeper for the judicial system, Stephens said.

“Judges are supposed to conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates to everyone that justice does not play favorites,” he said. “If a judge fails in the role as a gatekeeper ... the integrity of the court system is completely compromised and the public’s trust in the system is lost.”

Though the misdemeanor Ruth pleaded guilty to carries a maximum penalty of 120 days in jail, she will not serve any active time if she continues to cooperate with the State Bureau of Investigation and others looking into the case.

Stephens’ speech from the bench and advocacy for court proceedings to be done in public raised the hackles of Cheshire. He contended that what transpired was a prosecution of Crouch without him present and having the opportunity for cross-examination.

“What we witnessed in that courtroom today was carefully crafted theater,” Cheshire said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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