Murray County Chief Magistrate Judge Bryant Cochran has resigned, ending a judicial ethics investigation that included the judge’s practice of distributing pre-signed, blank arrest and search warrants to local law enforcement officers.
Cochran resigned effective 5 p.m. Wednesday, his attorney, Christopher Townley, said Thursday. The resignation was delivered to Governor Nathan Deal, who accepted it Thursday morning. Cochran’s departure comes just two weeks after his re-election to a third term.
Cochran agreed never to seek or hold judicial office again, according to a consent order the JQC posted on its website Thursday.
The JQC’s public report said its investigation focused on “whether the judge pre-signed blank arrest warrants for completion by law enforcement officers while he was absent from office.” The report also said the inquiry included “whether the judge allowed the prestige of his office to advance his private interests.”
JQC director Jeffrey Davis would not elaborate on how the judge may have misused his office to advance his private interests. “The matters we investigated, many of which have been made public, are those matters which are referred to in the reported disposition,” he said. “That’s about as specific as I can get.”
Two women have told the Daily Report and the JQC that Cochran sought sexual favors from them. One woman, Angela Garmley, and her attorney, former Georgia legislator McCracken Poston, have said that Cochran asked Garmley to become his mistress in return for a favorable ruling against several people against whom she had sworn out criminal warrants. A second woman who previously had sought help from the judge in a criminal matter told the Daily Report that Cochran had crudely propositioned her last year.
Townley said Cochran’s decision to step down from an office he has held for eight years was not related to the sexual harassment allegations. “He’s just furious” about those complaints, Townley said.
Cochran’s two-sentence resignation letter to the governor offered no explanation for his decision but simply his thanks “to the people of Georgia and Murray County for allowing me to serve.”
In a written statement Townley forwarded to the Daily Report, Cochran said, “I accept full responsibility for the warrants that were pre-signed. This is SOLELY the reason for my resignation.”
“My first responsibility is to my family and our well-being,” Cochran’s statement said. “Eight years ago I asked to be a public official but I never asked for my loved ones to be brought under fire. Your family and mine should be off limits! These attacks have crossed a line that shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. At the end of the day, this is just a job and I can’t think of any job worth what we’ve been put through. Thank you to my friends, family, and supporters for everything. I hope you understand and respect my decision. Sometimes it is not a question of whether or not to fight but what you are going to win?”
The pre-signed, undated warrants were made available to county deputies and Chatsworth police whenever Cochran was not available to sign them, according to the JQC. Before signing a warrant, a judge is required to determine whether officers have probable cause, and must have the officers swear that the information they have provided in order to obtain a warrant is accurate.
Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the Daily Report, “If it is true that he [Cochran] pre-signed the warrants, that would be an egregious violation of the Constitution. The whole purpose of the warrant requirement is to insure that there is a legal judgment by a objective judicial officer to protect people from illegal arrests and searches. Law enforcement officers are not to make determinations of probable cause; they are to be made by a judicial officer. This allowed the officers to do as they pleased.”
On Thursday, Davis said the JQC is aware of “numerous instances where blank warrants were signed by the judge.”
“As we have in the past, the commission will cooperate with any criminal investigation,” Davis continued. And, he added, “The focus of the investigation involved allegations of misconduct in the judge’s office and had absolutely nothing to do with members of his family.”
District Attorney Bert Poston of the Conasauga Judicial Circuit (which includes Murray County), said Thursday he has scheduled a meeting with JQC investigator Richard Hyde for today concerning whether a criminal investigation of Cochran might be warranted. After that meeting occurs, he said, “We will start making decisions about what needs to be done. … We’ll have to look at what evidence they have and then look at what particular statutes might apply.”
On Wednesday, Assistant State Attorney General David McLaughlin, chief of the state attorney general’s criminal investigation division, said he was aware of the JQC investigation and had been conferring with the district attorney. “We are in a holding pattern,” McLaughlin said. “We don’t have jurisdiction over that kind of judge. It’s a county matter.”
But he said that if the district attorney were to disqualify himself in connection with any potential prosecution, “It would ultimately come to us.”
Bert Poston told the Daily Report on Wednesday that his office also was reviewing the Tuesday night arrest of Angela Garmley by county sheriff’s deputies with regard to possible witness tampering, although he said the arrest “by itself” didn’t appear to be improper.
Garmley was charged with felony drug possession after her car, which was being driven by a friend, was stopped by a county deputy for an alleged failure to dim its headlights. The deputy, who had a drug dog with him, searched the car during the stop, eventually locating a small magnetic box attached to the car’s undercarriage with what appeared to be methamphetamine inside.
Garmley has denied that the suspected drugs belonged to her, and McCracken Poston called the arrest “a setup” by Cochran, whom he referred to as “a rogue judge.”
At Garmley’s bond hearing Wednesday, Poston asked the district attorney that a special prosecutor be appointed, and he called on the DA to ask for help from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
On Thursday morning, Townley — Cochran’s attorney — called McCracken Poston’s allegations “preposterous,” adding that Cochran “had nothing to do with that.”