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Rebel Yell II: Will Georgia’s Charles Walker Get a New Trial?

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Dramatic developments in Georgia, as federal judge Dudley Bowen, who presided over the trial and sentencing of former Georgia senate leader Charles Walker, acknowledged that he never should have been involved with the case because his “impartiality might reasonably have been questioned.” The announcement instantly triggered demands for a new trial. The recusal thickens the cloud of impropriety surrounding the prosecution. It was initiated by a U.S. attorney who was removed after an internal Justice Department study concluded his conduct was politically motivated and inappropriate. I profiled the Walker case in October 2007 in “The Justice Department Raises a Rebel Yell: The Strange Prosecution of Charles Walker.”

In 1996, Charles Walker, a Georgia publisher and entrepreneur, became the first black American to be chosen as a Senate majority leader in the country. He achieved that in Georgia. And he quickly used his new position to advance some causes that were unpopular with whites in general and with the state’s Neoconfederate Republicans in particular. He pressed an initiative to drop the Confederate battle flag from the state flag of Georgia. Segregationists had adopted the Confederate banner as the state flag in 1956, as an act of defiance in the face of a growing civil rights movement. Walker’s effort succeeded, but it unleashed a tidal wave of resentment that Republicans rode to electoral success in Georgia. And it may have had personal consequences for Walker.

George W. Bush took charge in Washington in 2001, and new U.S. attorneys were appointed in Georgia. Walker suddenly discovered that he was the target of a no-holds-barred criminal investigation—an investigation launched in search of a crime. The U.S. attorney in question was the subject of a Justice Department investigation that found he opened criminal cases which appeared to advance the interests of a Republican candidate who happened to be his friend. The U.S. attorney in question was forced to resign his position, but did so after promising senior figures in the Georgia G.O.P. that the effort to get Walker would proceed just the same. And in fact it did. The case contained 142 counts, arguing that Walker engaged in fraud and corrupt dealings. The counts were for the most part an extreme stretch: at the heart of the government’s case was a claim that Walker defrauded advertisers in his publication by overstating its subscription base, a not exactly earth-shattering practice. But highly abusive practices identified by the Department’s own internal probe—reiterating corruption claims and widely fanning them in the press—drove the case to a dubious conviction.

The trial judge in the case was Dudley Bowen, who had close ties to the Augusta newspaper that was Walker’s principal competitor. Bowen turned out to be a perfect judge–from the prosecution’s perspective. He ruled against Walker on each of his 25 pre-trial motions, and directed that the jury be drawn from an overwhelmingly white pool.

Even in upholding Walker’s conviction, the Eleventh Circuit went out of its way to say it was “disturbed” by the district court’s handling of the case.

Walker is now pursuing a habeas corpus petition. In a preliminary motion, he argued that Judge Bowen needed to remove himself from the case. Bowen, he argued, knew that Walker had actively opposed his appointment to the federal bench over thirty years ago based on his membership in whites-only clubs, and should have recused himself. In a May 18 order, Bowen acknowledged that he should never have handled the case. He stepped aside.

The conviction of Charles Walker stands, but with the prosecutor who brought the case removed for political shenanigans and the federal judge who presided over it now out because of an open appearance of bias, the conviction looks increasingly unsupportable. The appropriate step at this point is not a new trial. It would be for Eric Holder to intervene as he did in the Stevens case and insist on the dismissal of the conviction in the interests of justice.

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