First came the conviction of former judge Tracie Hunter, then came a series of appeals that shook Ohio’s legal system for years.
And then Monday, amid screams of racial injustice from her supporters, came a sheriff’s deputy to drag a defeated and limp-bodied Hunter away from the courtroom.
Hunter, 52, was sentenced to six months in jail, convicted of a felony count of unlawful interest in a public contract, which charged that she gave confidential documents to her brother for a disciplinary hearing in his court job. That 2014 ruling was upheld in state appeals court, and in May a federal judge rejected her bid to avoid jail.
SUPPORTERS INTIMIDATED SECOND JUDGE:
Before the sentencing, Common Pleas Judge Patrick Dinkelacker held up postcards he had received at his home from angry supporters of Hunter, asking him to exonerate her. Some criticized Dinkelacker for a 2013 incidentin which he struck a pedestrian with his car. The woman died after being struck by another car, but Dinkelacker was not charged.
“If the intent was to intimidate me, in any way, that has flat-out failed,” he told the court, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
After the sentencing, a woman rushed toward Hunter and was arrested, and yells of “no justice, no peace” echoed in the chamber. Hunter wore a dress with white trim that resembled a judge’s robe. It was a surreal moment — and her attorney said he was not sure why she went limp.
“Everything happened too fast. My guess was she was overcome with shock,” David Singleton told The Washington Post. “I looked into her eyes, and she looked panicked.”
The chaotic scene inside the Hamilton County Courthouse was the tumultuous end of a legal battle that Singleton said was plagued by political fights and conflicts of interest with the county prosecutor’s office, which helped represent Hunter’s opponent in an election lawsuit.
“She got on the wrong side of the political establishment in Hamilton County. They went at her with everything they had,” Singleton said, maintaining that Hunter never acted improperly. “You don’t lock someone up for a nepotism charge … the judge did not have to impose that particular sentence.”
Hunter, a Democrat, lost a narrow election to Republican John Williams in 2010, but a year-and-a-half legal challenge over provisional ballots led to her victory in 2012. Williams was appointed to the juvenile court by then-Gov. John Kasich (R) in 2011.
Williams was represented in the lawsuit in part by Republican Joseph T. Deters, the county prosecutor who openly feuded with Hunter and recused himself from her felony case. He appointed special prosecutors. Deters said he had no impact on her case.
“She has been incredibly disrespectful to you and the justice system,” Deters wrote to Dinkelacker, who upheld the sentence from a previous judge. Deters also suggested that Hunter should undergo a mental evaluation, the Associated Press reported. His spokeswoman declined to comment and referred to earlier statements.
But in a startling move after the sentencing, Deters said Hunter should be considered for clemency by the governor.
“Quite frankly, Tracie is not a violent threat to the community,” Deters told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “We’ve got people who need to be in jail who are.”
Deters spoke to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) about the issue, the governor’s spokesman Daniel Tierney told The Washington Post, though in Ohio a defendant must request clemency to begin the process.
Singleton said he would seek a pardon rather than a commutation. “We’ll do what we can to make sure her name is cleared, and she gets out of jail as soon as possible,” he said.
Protesters gathered at Dinkelacker’s home, angered by the decision that activists believe furthered already stark racial divides in southwestern Ohio.
“The brutal force by which she was removed, and drug out of the courtroom, despite the fact that she did not resist, was further evidence of the egregiousness and vindictiveness of this entire case,” the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter said in a statement.
The explosive end to the case revealed those deep troubles, Singleton said.
“There has been history of racial divide in Cincinnati,” he said. “What happened in the courtroom was a continuation of folks feeling left out, excluded and not listened to.”
Correction: This story identified a bailiff as the official who dragged Hunter away. It was a sheriff’s deputy.