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Fourteen years after she pleaded guilty to malice murder in the shooting death of her boyfriend and received a life sentence, Phyllis June Tate’s courtroom admission of guilt has been tossed by a DeKalb County, Ga., judge. Tate’s July 1989 plea was not made freely and intelligently because she was under the influence of anti-depressant medication and clearly confused about what malice murder meant, according to DeKalb Superior Court Judge Hilton M. Fuller Jr. On the day of her plea, Tate told Judge Joe C. Crumbley about the medication, but Crumbley moved on, never asking Tate if the drugs were affecting her judgment or ability to understand what was happening, according to a transcript. A crucial decision Tate’s time in court before Crumbley, then the chief judge of Clayton County, Ga., Superior Court, now retired, probably lasted only a few minutes, judging from the scant six-page transcript of her plea hearing. But in those brief minutes, Tate “made perhaps the most important decision of her life,” Fuller wrote. “Georgia’s trial courts are busy and often overworked. Decisions are made and lives adjusted, often very quickly. It is essential that all participants in the criminal process-judge, defense attorney, prosecutor and others-remain alert to unusual responses and situations that arise in this process.” Had someone asked Tate a few more questions, the plea could have been postponed until her mind was clear, and there would be no doubt that her plea was voluntary, Fuller wrote. Tate v. O’Donnell, No. 03CV3312-5. Fuller recently granted Tate’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petition was heard in DeKalb County because Tate was incarcerated at Metro State Prison there. The state attorney general’s office did not appeal Fuller’s order. Lawyers who represented the state in the case couldn’t be reached. Tate, according to her lawyer, Drew Findling, is now back in the Clayton County jail, back in the same legal situation she was in prior to her 1989 plea. Clayton County District Attorney Robert E. Keller could not be reached to discuss whether he plans to prosecute Tate further.

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