Trial judge and Navajo County Attorney face off over releases from jail

Steven Garnett, Jr. and Martin Woods are released for second semester classes after three months detention

A long look at the records shows that Judge Fred Newton of the Coconino County Superior Court checked with the Navajo County Probation Office in December, and then encouraged Steven Garnett, Sr. to write a letter requesting release for Steven Garnett, Jr. and Martin Woods to attend college classes in the spring semester.

The letter from the senior Garnett was undated but the first notice to the office of the Navajo County Attorney from Judge Newton came on Jan. 5 in a faxed minute indicating that Newton was considering release for Steve Garnett, Jr. and Martin Woods for spring semester classes.

The proceedings were complicated by the fact that the judge was in one county and the prosecuting attorney in another. Judge Newton reminded Deputy County Attorney Joel Ruechel that he allowed transmittal of minutes by fax, and Ruechel reminded the judge that there was inadequate time to contact all the victims' families.

State demands removal of Judge Newton

On Jan. 19 Deputy Navajo County Attorney Ruechel requested the removal of Judge Newton from the hazing cases. Ruechel said that Newton showed "bias and prejudice" in the defendants favor in releasing them from jail after three months of a nine months sentence.

In a second supplement to that demand, submitted on Jan 26, Ruechel summed up his position. First, the letter of the defendants' father was treated as a motion, which is contrary to law. Second, the judge implied that the state "dragged its feet" when it did not meet the time line set by the judge for response to the request for release. Third, the Jan. 12 deadline for that response was before any official motion had been filed. Fourth, the actual release was on Jan. 16 and the judge had the state's objections before that. Fifth, the court furloughed the defendants due to college enrollment, but there is no evidence submitted. This was a sworn statement from Ruechel.

Newton's reply to the recusal demand was in a minute entry of Jan. 22. He said that he had reviewed the state's request and, while it was "certainly tempting to simply agree with the State and recuse himself from this divisive, conflict ridden case," he would not do so. He gave the following reasons. First, a number of judges, including all those from Navajo County, were already recused from the case. Second, all the judges who had participated in the settlement and sentencing hearings were criticized by both sides for either being too harsh or too lenient. Finding another judge would take time and simply drag matters out further. Newton has been emphasizing the need to bring closure to this case.

On the specifics of Ruechel's demand, Newton said that the request from Steve Garnett, Sr., was not a proper pleading paper, but that the court took "the request seriously and immediately notified the state of its intent to do so." There was then a more formal request from the defendant's lawyer. Newton reminded Ruechel that he had also accepted informal requests from the victims' side involving restitution.

Newton said that the notices were on a fast timeline because of the opening date of spring semester at Northland Pioneer College on Jan. 16. The court granted the state's request for an extension, and then granted the further request for a hearing, set for Jan 25. The court allowed the use of fax transmission to keep everyone informed. "For all these reasons," Newton said in his statement, "the Court had treated each of the parties with respect, fairness and dignity and will continue to do so. No recusal is needed. The State's request for Recusal of Judge is denied."

The Jan. 25 hearing was vacated and never held. Prosecutor Ruechel stated that it could not be held until the matter of the demand for Newton's removal was settled. More puzzling was the failure to hold the settlement hearing on Jan. 24, scheduled in the Coconino County Division III court of Judge Coker. This hearing was to either hear a settlement agreement or to set a trail date for the last of the hazing case defendants, Shane Garnett. The hearing was "vacated" by mutual agreement of the attorneys. The prosecutor's office said that the hearing was cancelled because of the conflict with Judge Newton and because of a civil case filed in December. There is no date set yet for the resumption of this plea agreement hearing.

Recusal hearing date scheduled

The next step in the process appears to be a hearing for the recusal for cause and removal of Judge Newton. This is currently scheduled for Feb. 7th in the Navajo County Superior Court. A judge has been called back from retirement to hear the two sides, according to court staff. His full name was not available at press time. After this opinion is issued, which may take some time, dates for the hearings previously scheduled on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25 will be reset.

On Judge Newton's order the two defendants released for enrollment in college are at home, under probation, continuing to attend classes and participating in their required community service.

According to staff at the Navajo County Court on Friday, Jan. 26 three other defendants were still in jail and three had been released, all early, and were completing their probation from home.

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