ELIZABETHTON — Justice in Carter County took an unusual turn on Tuesday when Sessions Court Judge John Walton was called to the witness stand in Criminal Court.
The occasion was a bench trial before Judge Robert Cupp on an appeal by Aaron Keever of two criminal contempt convictions he received in Walton’s court, resulting in two consecutive 10-day jail sentences.
Keever was represented by Public Defender Melanie Sellers. The appeal was based on whether a judge could find a defendant in contempt without a hearing in cases involving failure to appear.
Sellers wrote in a pretrial memorandum that Keever was arrested Aug. 13 on two capiases accusing him of failure to appear on driving on suspended license charges. He was not able to post a $600 cash bond and remained in jail until he had a court appearance on Aug. 20, even though court was in session on earlier dates. Sellers said that in his hearing, Keever “was summarily found guilty of criminal contempt without notice, an opportunity to retain counsel or have counsel appointed, and without a hearing.”
The question raised was whether a judge could convict a defendant of criminal contempt without a hearing in cases of failure to appear.
When such an act is committed in the courtroom, a judge can determine whether it was a willful act or not, but Cupp said a failure appear is not committed in the courtroom. A judge can obviously see that the defendant is not in the courtroom, but the reason cannot be known by the judge.
In cases outside court, Sellers said a defendant must be provided notice that includes the time and place of the hearing.
She said keeping a defendant in jail from Aug. 13 to Aug. 20 without an arraignment, without notice of the facts of the charge, without notice of when the hearing would take place and without the appointment of a lawyer “that the interests of justice can only be served by a complete dismissal.”
Walton testified that he always ordered a capias when a defendant fails to appear, but he decided whether they should be issued and when they should be issued. Walton said they are frequently served on a defendant when he is brought to jail on an unrelated charge.
Cupp, Walton, prosecuting attorney Dennis Brooks and public defender Sellers discussed the best way to handle failure to appear cases in the future.
Cupp ended the trial by dismissing the charges.