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Lawyer argues for judge’s removal in death penalty case

Alleges ‘appearance of impropriety’ by Deal

POSTED: November 25, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Judge E.H. "Bucky" Woods questions attorney Doug Ramseur during a hearing about defense arguments as to why Superior Court Judge Jason Deal should be recused from the Alan Robert Dickie murder case.

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A lawyer for a murder defendant facing the possibility of the death penalty said the presiding judge violated his own order by obtaining information about the case outside of court.

Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal obtained jail disciplinary reports on Alan Robert Dickie in June, apparently without the knowledge of the defense or prosecution, which attorney Doug Ramseur argued in a hearing Friday was a violation of court rules.

Ramseur wants the judge off the case, saying that by conducting a "fact-finding investigation," Deal called into question his neutrality in the case.

"This raises a very large appearance of impropriety on the part of Judge Deal," Ramseur said.

Deal was not present for the hearing, which was heard by visiting Superior Court Judge E.H. "Bucky" Woods. Reached by phone after the hearing, Deal said he was unable to comment.

Dickie, 20, is charged with kidnapping, rape and murder in the August 2007 stabbing death of 37-year-old Claudia Toppin, whose body was discovered outside a supermarket on Pearl Nix Parkway.

According to arguments presented to Woods on Friday, an order to evaluate Dickie for mental competency to stand trial was entered under seal by Deal over the objections of Dickie’s attorneys.

Deal attached to the motion 24 pages of jail "diaries" that included accounts by jailers of alleged misconduct by Dickie at the Hall County jail.

"The problem is, these records were never in evidence," Ramseur said.

Hall County Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Burton said no one from the district attorney’s office gave the documents to the judge.

Hall County Sheriff’s Spokesman Col. Jeff Strickland said the commander of the Hall County jail has no documentation of the judge requesting the documents.

Burton argued that Deal should not be recused from the case, because he only attached the jail records as evidence of need for a mental evaluation of Dickie.

"If you read the judge’s order, he states he has concerns about (Dickie’s) mental competency," Burton said. Several factors contributed to the judge’s concern, including a prominent tattoo on Dickie’s forehead that includes a four-letter profanity, Burton said.

"There were no decisions on the merits of this case, and the actions taken by Judge Deal were actually on the defendant’s behalf in order to ensure he’s getting a fair trial," Burton said.

Ramseur said such actions by a judge in a death penalty case could be grounds for an appeal years from now.

"The stakes get raised because this is a capital murder case," Ramseur said, in arguing for the judge’s recusal. "I think it’s best if we err on the side of caution."

Woods took the matter under advisement and will rule later.



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