ELIZABETHTON — Tuesday was a remarkable day for Carter County Criminal Court, with three defendants charged with first-degree murder on the docket. The problem was these major cases were overwhelmed by a large number of misdemeanor cases.
“It was the worst I have ever seen,” Judge Robert Cupp said at the end, after he heard the last of 94 cases on the docket. Even with that large a caseload, one lawyer tried to wedge a client who was not on the docket in front of the judge. Cupp would not consider adding another case, even though the defendant was standing before him.
The docket was highlighted by three murder defendants who were making their first appearances in Criminal Court.
A motions hearing had been scheduled for Tiffani Marie Holston, who is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child neglect in the death of her 4-year-old son, Joshua Holston. He died when he was struck by a dump truck while crossing at the intersection of Broad Street and Lynn Avenue on Oct. 11.
Holston has not yet been arraigned. She was in court on a hearing for three motions in the case filed by Assistant Public Defender Melanie Sellers. Sellers was seeking the dismissal of the indictment, a reduction in bond and to restrict publicity.
Because of the crowded docket, the motions hearing was reset for Jan. 17. The motion to restrict publicity was probably moot because prosecutor Dennis Brooks said the district attorney general’s office agreed with Sellers’ motion. Cupp said the motion was aimed not at the press but at court officials, including the district attorney general’s office, to restrict their comments to the media.
Arraignments were held for two other murder defendants. Both Whitney Kristina Harris and Timothy Jason Pate pleaded not guilty on charges of first-degree murder, felony murder and tampering with evidence. Their next appearance was set for Jan. 25.
Harris and Pate are accused in the murder of Lonnie Townsend, 78, in their home on April 17. The motive is said to be robbery.
Cupp took the pleas separately. Harris went first. Cupp began by asking her who was caring for her two children while she was in jail. Harris told him the children were in the care of a relative.
The murder cases took only a few minutes of the court’s time. During the rest of the session, Cupp acted more as a traffic control officer than a judge. He arranged the defendants in four categories. He began by taking the cases in which the defendants had hired lawyers, while the other groups sat.
One of the remaining groups consisted of those already in jail. They sat in the jury box, dressed in their jail uniforms. The other groups were those with felony charges out on bond and those with misdemeanor charges. They sat in the gallery.
After he dispensed with the defendants who had lawyers, Cupp had all the defendants who had not hired lawyers form a line. The line stretched from the judge’s bench all the way to the door at the rear of the court. These were given a printed list of attorneys in Carter County and their cases were reset.
The result was a conveyor belt of justice as defendants quickly reached the bench and described their cases and were given new court dates. The line did not appear to grow smaller at first, as more filled in at the end of the line when those at the front received their new court dates and left. Not all left, Cupp ordered drug tests for a few and ordered their arrest when they failed the test.
After court, Cupp said his actions were in response to the large number of misdemeanor cases appealed from Sessions Court and the large number of driving on suspended license cases.
“Criminal Court should be for felony cases. I can see an occasional misdemeanor case that needs to be brought to Criminal Court, but we are being flooded with them,” Cupp said. “They should be worked out in Sessions Court.”
Cupp said he plans to discuss the problem with District Attorney General Tony Clark.
He also said the state has made it too difficult for someone who has completed their punishment on a driving violation to get their license back.
“They must not only pay all their fines and costs, but the state charges them additional fees, sometimes up to $2,000.”