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Friday, April 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Tennessee Judge’s Drug Conviction Upheld

(CN) - A divided 6th Circuit panel largely upheld the drug-related conviction of a former Tennessee criminal judge, vacating only a jury's conclusion that he engaged in a conspiracy the moment he asked a known user to buy him hydrocodone.

Richard Baumgartner became a judge on the state felony trial court in Tennessee in 1992, and from 2000 to 2011, he also presided over the Know County (Tenn.) Drug Court, which was developed as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders with substance-abuse problems.

Among those who appeared in Baumgartner's court on multiple occasions was Deena Castleman. She successfully completed the drug court's treatment and job training program in 2005, but was back in the drug court in 2007, at which time she was kicked out of the program.

Two years, Baumgartner invited Castleman into his chambers and gave her $175 to buy hydrocodone for him. Instead, she used his money to buy drugs for herself and was arrested for possession in neighboring Anderson County.

Castleman told Baumgartner about her legal situation and he called his friend and colleague, Anderson County Judge Donald Elledge. During that conversation, Baumgartner suggested Castleman would be a good candidate for Anderson County's drug court program.

Despite this assist from the judge, Castleman decided not apply for the drug court program and instead agreed to three years' probation, the ruling states.

While she was on probation, Baumgartner continued giving her money for pills, bought her a cell phone for the drug deals and ultimately, the two became lovers. During this period, Castleman told the judge the names of her suppliers, and he eventually began dealing directly with one of them himself.

In 2010, Castleman's troubles worsened when she was arrested on charges of aggravated burglary. Again, Baumgartner attempted to intercede, asking the judge hearing her case to drop the charges.

Two months later, Baumgartner tried to arrange for Castleman to stay at the local YMCA's transitional housing unit, and lied to the housing director in the process. He later talked a magistrate judge to void an arrest warrant for Castleman on charges that she failed to pat child support, and also asked an assistant district attorney to go easy on her for a number of other charges.

After Baumgartner's deeds were found out, he was tried and convicted on five counts of misprision of felony - essentially of his having knowledge of the commission of a felony and failing to notify federal authorities.

This week, a divided 6th Circuit panel largely upheld the jury's conclusions.

Writing for the majority, U.S. Circuit Judge Danny Julian Boggs noted that "Castleman testified that Baumgartner was giving her $250 to $300, 2 to 3 times per week, for months, to purchase pills on his behalf, and that she was making money on the transactions.

"Two of her co-conspirators also testified that she paid them cash to transport her to and from drug deals and sometimes to and from Baumgartner's office for purposes of conducting the transactions," Boggs continued.

"The evidence was sufficient to enable a rational jury to conclude that, by the time the conduct underlying Counts 4 through 7 of the indictment took place, Castleman was participating in or had participated in a drug conspiracy," he said.

Boggs and U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who was sitting by designation, also believed that given these facts, a jury "could have easily concluded" that Baumgartner not only knew of the conspiracy, but acted to conceal it.

"In Baumgartner's defense, the statements themselves did not relate to the drug conspiracy - they were misstatements about Castleman, her character, her drug use, and her continued involvement in drug court," Boggs wrote. "But the question is not whether the content of the statements concealed the felony; rather it is whether his making the statements - his efforts to protect Castleman - concealed the felony. And a reasonable jury could conclude that they did." (Emphasis in original)

In vacating the initial conspiracy charge on which Baumgartner was convicted, the panel majority held that no "rational trier of fact could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that Castleman was involved in a drug conspiracy as of May 2009," when the judge initially asked her to buy him drugs.

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay dissented in part, writing that the definition of concealment has been viewed vaguely.

"The government urges, and the majority accepts, that some combination of deceit and criminality add up to concealment if you look at it from the right angle. This interpretation gives the misprision statute a stunningly broad approach," he wrote. "The government proved that defendant lied and was tangled up in drugs. But the government did not prove that defendant concealed the underlying felony - the narcotics conspiracy helmed by Deena Castleman. I would vacate defendant's conviction on all counts, not just count 1, and therefore respectfully dissent in part."

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