Phil Friduss, attorney for the former magistrate judge, denied that his client sought sex from a litigant, adding she received precisely what she asked from the judge.
Phil Friduss, attorney for the former magistrate judge, denied that his client sought sex from a litigant, adding she received precisely what she asked from the judge. ()

A federal judge in Rome has dismissed a civil rights suit against a former Murray County magistrate judge, finding that he was entitled to judicial immunity even though his conduct was “distasteful and inappropriate.”

U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy dismissed the ex-magistrate, Bryant Cochran, from the suit, which claimed that Cochran had solicited sexual favors from a woman who had sought the judge’s help in securing arrest warrants for three people who had attacked her.

That woman, Angela Garmley, subsequently became a cooperating witness in an ethics investigation of Cochran by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Her suit also claimed that Cochran then engaged in a conspiracy with local sheriff’s deputies, one of them his cousin, and his sometime handyman and tenant to plant illegal drugs under her car and then have her arrested.

Two of Cochran’s co-defendants in the civil rights suit—former Murray County Deputy Joshua Greeson and former Deputy Capt. Michael Henderson—have pleaded guilty to obstructing justice for their roles in Garmley’s false arrest. Cochran’s tenant, Clifford J. Joyce, pleaded guilty to a felon drug possession charge for his role in setting up Garmley, who was arrested the night before Cochran resigned his judicial post to end the JQC investigation. Murphy has sentenced all three men to federal prison terms.

Cochran’s criminal defense attorney, Page Pate, has told the Daily Report that Cochran is the target of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation in connection with Garmley’s arrest. But Cochran so far has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing, and Murphy’s Feb. 7 order clears him of civil liability. Greeson and Henderson remain defendants in the case.

Murphy wrote that Garmley’s allegations that Cochran had sought sexual favors from her took place while Garmley was seeking an arrest warrant in Cochran’s chambers and that Cochran was acting in his official capacity as the chief magistrate judge. Cochran does not have a law degree, and Georgia law does not require magistrates to have them in smaller counties.

“Under those circumstances,” Murphy held, “Cochran is entitled to judicial immunity for the allegations relating to plaintiff Angela Garmley’s magistrate court experience,” even though he described Cochran’s alleged misconduct as “highly inappropriate and offensive.”

On Monday, Cochran’s attorney, Phillip Friduss with Landrum, Friduss & Ash in Woodstock, said that he and Cochran were pleased with Murphy’s decision.

Friduss has previously rejected Garmley’s claims, saying, “It never happened.” He said that Murphy determined that “Garmley got precisely the justice she came to court to obtain—Judge Cochran issued warrants for the arrests of three people alleged to have assaulted Garmley, and each of the alleged assailants were in fact arrested.”

Murphy, Friduss added, also agreed with him that even if Cochran had solicited sex from Garmley in return for a favorable court ruling, “while distasteful, were it actually to have happened, asking for sex is not a civil rights violation.”

Friduss also dismissed allegations that Cochran arranged to have illegal drugs planted under Garmley’s car and then orchestrated her arrest through his cousin, Henderson, saying the conspiracy claim “was not plausible on its face.”

“My client has always been forthright about the arrests,” he said, while acknowledging that Cochran called authorities to report that Garmley was transporting illegal drugs “and where in the car the drugs could be found. “Garmley and her lawyers are the ones that have yelled at the top of their lungs that Cochran therefore must have been involved in the plant. The federal court was not willing to accept that leap without more. Garmley and her lawyers simply didn’t and don’t have more.”

Alluding to the federal grand jury investigation, Friduss said, “This is just another battle won in a much larger war. We will not rest on our laurels. We will continue to work day and night to clear the good name of Bryant Cochran.”

Garmley’s attorney, McCracken Poston, called Murphy’s ruling “very frustrating” and said he intends to appeal.

“We learned from the federal government in the three sentencing hearings so far [of Greeson, Henderson and Joyce] that Judge Cochran contacted several officers trying to get them to agree to pull [Garmley] over,” he said. “We learned that when the drug dog didn’t find the drugs, Judge Cochran told his cousin at the scene where the drugs could be found. … Then we learned that the man who planted the drugs did it for his landlord, who was Cochran.”

“These conspiracies are not done with a written contract,” Poston continued. “I think if we had access to everything the feds had … we feel there would have been a different outcome.”

Citing a 2005 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Sibley v. Lando, Murphy said in his Feb. 7 order that judges are entitled to absolute immunity from liability or damage claims as long as they are acting in their official capacity.

That immunity applies even when a judge’s actions may be in error, malicious or exceeded their jurisdiction, Murphy held.

Garmley claimed in her suit that when she went to Cochran’s office to secure the warrants, Cochran invited her into his chambers, closed the door, and began asking her personal questions, including whether she had ever cheated on her husband.

Garmley’s suit also claimed that Cochran told her in crude language that his wife didn’t take care of his “needs in the bedroom,” that he was looking for “a mistress that he could trust,” and that he was sexually aroused by Garmley.

Cochran then instructed Garmley that if she returned to his office later that week wearing “a tight dress and no panties” that she “would be happy with the results,” according to the suit.

Garmley never returned to Cochran’s office and never had sex with him, and when she appeared in court for a hearing in her case Cochran “verbally abused” her, according to the suit. Garmley then complained to the JQC. It was during that investigation that her car was pulled over by Greeson because, the deputy later said, driver Jason Southern had failed to dim his headlights for an oncoming car. Southern was driving Garmley home when Greeson, who was patrolling with a drug dog, stopped them. Greeson eventually discovered a package of methamphetamine hidden in a tin box under the front wheel well, but only after the dog failed several times to locate the drugs, and Henderson arrived at the scene.

Garmley, Southern, and Garmley’s ex-husband, Joe Garmley, were all arrested during the traffic stop. Joe Garmley was charged after he appeared at the scene after witnessing the stop, which took place not far from his house.

The charges against the Garmleys and Southern were dropped after the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the drugs had been planted, and federal authorities launched their own investigation.

Murphy said in his order that despite Cochran’s alleged sexual overtures, Garmley could not show that she was denied the relief she sought after she rejected his advances because Cochran did issue the arrest warrants she sought. Her allegations, he said, “consequently do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation.”

Murphy also dismissed the conspiracy claim stemming from Garmley’s arrest, saying that her complaint “does not contain sufficient factual allegations to make the existence of a [violation of civil rights] conspiracy plausible on its face” against Cochran.

“Indeed, defendant Cochran’s conduct, or misconduct, in connection with reporting the drugs in the vehicle, was not accomplished because of defendant Cochran’s status as a magistrate judge,” Murphy wrote. “Indeed, any disgruntled private citizen could have done what the defendant did under those circumstances,” he added, referring to Cochran’s acknowledgement that he had passed information to law enforcement officers that Garmley was carrying drugs.

At Joyce’s sentencing hearing in December, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey W. Davis told the court that Joyce “framed an innocent woman” by planting drugs on her car “because he wanted to help out his landlord,” according to a hearing transcript. “His actions strike at the core of American justice, because when innocent people are arrested the entire system is called into question.”

Joyce’s attorney, Calhoun lawyer Scott Forster, also told the judge, “You had law enforcement folks and folks who were sworn judges who were involved in this.”

At Henderson’s sentencing hearing, his lawyer, Rome attorney William Sparks, told the court that Henderson and several other law enforcement officers “were told by Magistrate Cochran that she [Garmley] may have drugs in her vehicle and where they may be located. … He did pass that information along. … Only upon the case blowing up, I think, did he have any concern that his knowledge of that or his passing that along would have been something that … could implicate him in some way.”

At Henderson’s hearing last October, Davis told the court, “In this case, you have a citizen who alleged that she was a victim of sexual advances by a judge. That same judge called several police officers to report that the citizen carried drugs in her car …. Then drugs, are, in fact, planted on the car. But when the GBI seeks to investigate this frame, the very officers who are supposed to protect the citizen lied and they protected themselves.”

But in his order dismissing Cochran as a defendant in Garmley’s suit, Murphy set aside federal prosecutors’ statements at the sentencing hearings. He called them “unsworn statements or arguments of counsel for the parties in the criminal cases” that “cannot constitute evidence of a conspiracy, evidence that defendant Cochran planted the drugs at issue, or evidence that defendant Cochran was aware that the drugs had been planted when he reported the drugs to law enforcement.”

“The mere possibility that [Cochran] might have acted unlawfully,” Murphy concluded, “is not sufficient to allow a claim to survive a motion to dismiss.”

The case is Garmley v. Cochran, No. 4:13-cv-00084.