Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, however, must recuse himself from any court proceedings that address the mental competency to stand trial of Allan Robert Dickie, a judge has ruled.
Lawyers for Dickie, charged with kidnapping, rape and murder in the August 2007 stabbing death of Claudia Toppin, said Deal called into question his neutrality in the case by independently researching jail disciplinary reports on their client.
Deal attached the records to an order for Dickie to undergo a mental compentency evaluation. Dickie, on the advise of his lawyers, refused to participate in the evaluation. Dickie's attorneys have not made his competency an issue in the case so far.
Mountain Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge E.H. "Bucky" Woods was asked to rule on the defense motion to recuse Deal from the case, and in an order issued this week, wrote that it did not appear the judge "harbors any leanings as to guilt or innocence of (Dickie) that would interfere with the defendant receiving a fair trial in the guilt-innocence or sentencing phase of this case."
Woods went on to write that judges must avoid "even the appearance of impropriety."
"In this matter, by relying upon the inmate diary reports in finding that a mental evaluation was necessary, it gives the appearance to a ‘reasonable person' that the trial judge sought out evidence to support such a finding," Woods wrote.
The ruling raises the possibility that two different judges could hear the case in different stages. Deal would preside in a criminal trial in front of a jury, but if Dickie's attorneys decide to make their client's competency to stand trial an issue, another judge would hear that evidence or preside over a civil competency trial, if requested.
While Dickie's attorneys have not made his mental compentency an issue, it is believed some aspect of his mental state will be raised by the defense at some point.
Ramsuer indicated as much during one of the first procedural pretrial hearings in the case. Attorneys could pursue a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, which does not directly relate to mental competency to stand trial and would not preclude Deal from presiding.
Dickie's lead attorney, Doug Ramsuer, did not immediately return a phone message today seeking comment. Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said he could not comment on the ruling.
Deal has previously said he can't comment outside of court on the case.