Note: This story was updated at 11:47 a.m. July 27.
CLINTON—First the judge recused himself and now the district attorney general’s office has been recused in a homicide case filed against an Oak Ridge man after a fatal crash in the crowded parking lot of Midtown Community Center after fireworks on July 4, 2015.
Both recusals were because of liens filed by the defendant, Lee Harold Cromwell, 66. The recusals mean another judge has already been appointed, and another DA will have to be appointed. A lien is a claim that one person owes something to another person.
Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Donald R. Elledge recused himself during a June 3 arraignment because of an $8 million lien filed against him by Cromwell.
“It was upsetting that he filed a frivolous lien against me,” Elledge said Monday. “I’m going to do everything I can legally, morally, and ethically to prosecute him criminally and civilly to the full extent of the law.”
Then, during a rescheduled arraignment on Monday, defense attorney James K. Scott asked for Anderson County District Attorney General Dave Clark and the DA’s office to also be recused. That was because of liens that Cromwell filed against the DA and another member of his office in “misplaced mindset” in a “misguided effort, out of desperation, to advocate for his innocence without the knowledge or advice of counsel,” Scott said in a motion to recuse.
Senior Judge Paul G. Summers, who was appointed to hear the case on June 30, granted the recusal.
“I do this reluctantly,” Summers told Scott. “But at the same time, I want to make sure I have a clean record.”
Summers, who set a five-day trial starting February 27, said he wanted to avoid an error. It’s a very serious case, and Cromwell, who has been charged with 17 counts—including three homicide charges—is potentially facing “serious confinement,” Summers said.
But the judge also raised a concern about giving Cromwell the benefit of filing a fraudulent lien, assuming the liens are fraudulent, and he wondered how the court could prevent similar acts from affecting the other 29 DAs in Tennessee.
“What would prevent the defendant (Cromwell) from doing the same thing with the next set of lawyers?” Summers asked.
The Anderson County DA’s office expressed a similar concern.
“What’s to prevent every DA across the state from being barred from this case?” prosecutor Tony Craighead asked.
Officials have said that courts have discretion on recusals, and there is not a specific requirement that a judge has to recuse himself or herself if a lien is filed against him or her.
“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” Michele Wojciechowski, spokesperson for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, said in June.
The discretion would presumably apply to judges’ decisions on recusing DAs as well.
On Monday, Summers suggested he’s not going to grant any more recusals.
“This is a one-time deal,” he told Scott.
The Anderson County DA’s office is expected to contact the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference to try to appoint a temporary DA to handle the case now.
Scott said he’s never asked a DA to recuse himself or herself before.
But based on the unique facts and circumstances, “I was left with no legal option,” Scott said.
In the motion to recuse, he said the attempted liens were legally ineffective, and Cromwell was “immediately regretful and experienced a heightened level of severe stress and uncertainty that were accompanied by a series of health problems generated by recurrent strokes for which he was hospitalized.”
The liens were not filed locally, said Anderson County Register of Deeds Tim Shelton.
Cromwell appears to have filed liens against at least five local law enforcement officials, according to records posted on the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website. Besides Elledge, the liens appear to have been filed against the arresting officer in the case, Oak Ridge Police Department Officer Ben Higgins; Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi; prosecutor Vickie Bannach of the Anderson County DA’s office; and Anderson County Circuit Court Clerk William Jones. Bannach was the prosecutor during earlier hearings in Anderson County General Sessions Court, but not during Monday’s arraignment in Anderson County Criminal Court, where Craighead was the prosecutor.
There are four different filing dates listed for the liens, some before Cromwell’s May 3 indictments by an Anderson County grand jury and some after: March 30, May 17, May 23, and May 27.
The Tennessee Secretary of State’s Division of Business Services processed more than 170,000 liens in 2015. Many are filed online.
“We ensure each lien meets statutory requirements, but it is not always possible to identify if a lien is fraudulent,” said Adam Ghassemi, director of communications for the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett.
Filing a fraudulent lien is a Class E felony in Tennessee. A Class E felony has a sentence range of one to six years, and one to two years for a standard offender, Summers said during Monday’s arraignment in Anderson County Circuit and Criminal Court in Clinton.
Elledge said he has already discussed the liens with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a federal task force, the Seventh District Attorney General’s Office (the Anderson County DA), and local legislators.
The May 3 indictments allege that Cromwell recklessly killed a Knoxville man, James Robinson, 37, with his truck and assaulted, with his vehicle, Robinson and 11 others, some of them children: La’Ruis Henderson, Ja’Taalia Henderson, Ja’Shalin Porter, Le’Meire Porter, Curtis Booker, Michael Eldridge, Elizabeth Eldridge, Mortisia Corey, and Robinson’s family—wife Julia Robinson and daughters Jaide and Jackie Robinson.
The specific charges against Cromwell are vehicular homicide, reckless homicide, criminally negligent homicide, 12 counts of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment when a deadly weapon is involved, and driving on a suspended or revoked license.
The most serious charge is the alleged vehicular homicide, a Class C felony. A Class C felony has a standard prison sentence of three to 15 years and three to six years for a standard offender. The other alleged charges include Class D felonies (aggravated assault and reckless homicide), Class E felonies (criminally negligent homicide and the reckless endangerment charge), and a Class B misdemeanor (driving on a suspended or revoked license).
Before the indictments, during a five-hour preliminary hearing in January, Higgins, the ORPD officer, and crash victim Michael Eldridge testified that Cromwell told them that the throttle had stuck as he drove a Dodge Ram pickup truck backward through the crowded parking lot at Midtown Community Center after fireworks ended across the street in A.K. Bissell Park on July 4, 2015.
But Higgins disputed the stuck-throttle claim during that hearing, which sent the charges to the Anderson County grand jury.
“Several of them (witnesses) said they heard his engine revving up and down,” Higgins testified. “If the throttle had been stuck, it would have been stuck at a consistent rpm, not up and down.”
Eldridge testified that Cromwell hit a Ford Thunderbird while backing slowly through the parking lot after fireworks, stopped, continued backing slowly until he hit a van, stopped, and then “floored it” before hitting a group of cars in front of the Midtown Community Center, injuring people and killing James Robinson.
Police said they found no evidence of a malfunction in the pickup, and there were no active recalls on it that would have affected the throttle.
But Scott, the defense attorney, said then that he expects that mechanical issues and questions about the Dodge Ram pickup will be raised in additional legal proceedings, and he’s still viewing the July 4 crash as an unintentional acceleration.
In the meantime, Cromwell remains free on $100,000 bond. The bond was set in Anderson County General Sessions Court last year, before the preliminary hearing this year.
Cromwell does not appear to be a danger, Craighead said Monday, and the DA’s office did not ask for a bond increase.
Concerns have previously been raised about whether Cromwell considers himself a “sovereign citizen” and denies governmental authority, but those concerns weren’t raised at the Monday arraignment.
In an affidavit filed in Oak Ridge City Court in May 2014, Cromwell said, while contesting a speeding ticket, that he denies the corporate existence of the United States, Tennessee, and a long list of agencies that include the Oak Ridge Police Department and Anderson County Sheriff’s Department.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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