By Michael R. Moser / firstname.lastname@example.org
Full disclosure, cooperation, remorse and counseling are reasons District Attorney General Bill Gibson should have his license to practice law reinstated, witnesses testified Monday before a panel of the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility.
There were no surprises and no bomb shells as 13 witnesses testified during the first day of what is expected to be a two-day hearing on whether the BPR should lift the suspension. Gibson has appealed the open-ended suspension.
It is believed this is the first time a sitting state prosecutor has had his license suspended.
In opening remarks, counsel for the BPR laid out its case centering around at least 11 letters Gibson sent to self-confessed killer Christopher Adams over a two-year period, the content of which raised serious ethics questions. In addition, Gibson’s interaction and legal counseling of Adams without his attorney’s knowledge raised more ethics issues.
And Gibson’s role in the Tina Marie Sweat case is also expected to be a center piece of BPR’s case. Sweat was charged in November 2002 with manufacturing methamphetamine, aggravated child abuse, aggravated assault, resisting arrest and possession of drug paraphernalia.
The case evolved into pre-trial diversion for Sweat, whose relationship with Gibson has been called into question. The case has since been expunged from the record and today Sweat, who was 27 at the time of her arrest, is in law school. However, the judge, John Turnbull, who signed off on the pre-trial diversion, believes he was misled and he has since filed a complaint against Gibson.
On one hand, supporting witnesses described Gibson as a prosecutor who would go after any criminal regardless of political connections or ramifications. Nearly all described him as compassionate and caring when it comes to victims of crimes and his staff.
Perplexing to the state agency charged with guarding the integrity of a law license is understanding how this same prosecutor could become an ally for a convicted killer and someone charged in a methamphetamine case.
The 17-year state prosecutor from Cookeville, whose 13th Judicial Circuit includes Cumberland County, had his license to practice law suspended nearly six months ago and 30 days later Assistant District Attorney Anthony Craighead was appointed District Attorney General Pro Tem, putting him in charge of the prosecutor’s office during Gibson’s absence.
Gibson, who is barred from having any contact with the DA’s office, retains the title and has been paid since his license was suspended.
Represented by Nashville attorney William T. Ramsey and Cookeville lawyer Shawn Fry, the panel was told that at issue is whether Gibson “poses a threat of substantial harm to the public,” Ramsey said. “We will show that he does not pose such a threat.”
Gibson has no prior disciplinary action over the 17 years he has served as prosecutor, had no selfish motive and was not motivated by self-interest, and made a full disclosure of his actions. In addition, Ramsey said Gibson has expressed remorse and has taken actions to ensure that the lapses do not happen again.
Under direction of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program, Gibson was seen by a panel of psychologists and psychiatrists to determine why he engaged in correspondence with the convicted killer. He also sought help at a treatment center in Arizona, Ramsey continued.
“He now understands what went wrong,” Ramsey said, and he continues to be monitored as suggested by the TLAP.
During his 30 years as a law enforcement officer, attorney and prosecutor, Gibson has been actively involved in community projects including an innovative methamphetamine prevention and reduction program, child abuse and domestic violence programs and initiatives to attack underage drinking.
Craighead was one of the witnesses who described Gibson as an excellent boss who did not mico-manage the staff, meddle in cases, who allowed the assistants to prosecute and who served as a mentor more than a boss. He testified that the letter exchange with Adams was “very uncharacteristic.”
Under cross examination from Sandi Garrett, one of the BPR’s lawyers, Craighead elaborated, calling Gibson’s letters “highly inappropriate, unprofessional and should have not been done.”
Garrett continued her questioning by bringing up the Sweat case and asked if Craighead had observed Gibson and Sweat together at a dress rehearsal for a play he was appearing in. Craighead explained that in the past he has participated in community theater in Cookeville as a stress reliever.
During a dress rehearsal he did see Sweat with Gibson but added that he did not know “who brought who.” He also testified that he was in a social setting at Gibson’s home, a cookout, and “she was there with him.” Under re-direct examination, he added that all he knew about Sweat was that she was a “poster child” for what has gone right with the methamphetamine reduction or rehab program, and that Gibson and Sweat served together on the Drug Court.
Assistant District Attorney Beth Willis testified that she has worked for Gibson since 2001 and she spoke passionately about Gibson’s care for his staff and, specifically, for her and her husband. “What Bill did was wrong, but he will be the first to admit he was wrong,” she said. Willis added that she feels Gibson had suffered enough during his suspension.
DA Investigator Terry Hembree described Gibson as a “very compassionate” man who worked hard in community programs dealing with child abuse.
Heather Trousdale of Cookeville was called to testify about the difference in the way Gibson handled her brother’s murder and the way it was handled two years prior to Gibson being elected to his first term. “I did not feel the former DA thought the case was important,” Trousdale testified. Gibson, on the other hand, made sure that his staff maintained contact with her family and kept them advised on progress in the case.
Her brother’s killer was not brought to trial until Gibson took office, she added.
Carolyn Isbell is the director of a private nonprofit child abuse action agency called the Stephens Center and she spent several minutes testifying about how Gibson not only joined the center’s board of directors, but was instrumental in bringing financial stability to the struggling organization.
Janelle Clark, executive director of Genesis House, a domestic violence shelter program for men and women, testified that Gibson was “the most victim-friendly DA that I know.” Gibson also served on the board of Genesis House.
She added that the ethics issues before the BPR was “such a minor percentage of what General Gibson does” when compared to the amount of community work the prosecutor does. “There is bound to redemption in that, somewhere,” Clark said.
Assistant District Attorney General Gary McKenzie gave a passionate testimony of his boss to the board. McKenzie noted that he was hired as an assistant prosecutor despite not having ties to the Plateau, and he talked about the support Gibson has given him personally. When McKenzie and his wife learned that something had happened to the baby they were expecting, Gibson and former assistant and now Criminal Court Judge David Patterson showed up at the hospital to support the young couple.
“He is a very compassionate man,” McKenzie told the board.
He also had words about Gibson as a boss. “He allowed me to be my own prosecutor,” McKenzie said. And he taught the assistant that prosecution of cases should have nothing to do with political ramifications.
“Look at all the good he has done, and the mistake he made, and decide from that,” McKenzie asked of the panel.
Jim Horner of Dyersburg served two years as an assistant to Gibson in the 1990s. He is one of the few men in Tennessee to have been elected both a prosecutor and a public defender.
“It wasn’t very smart about what he was doing” with the letters exchanged with Adams, Horner said. “It could happen to anyone … I see some with ethical problems. We have a lot of lawyers with a lot of ethical issues and criminal issues and they are still practicing law,” said Horner.
“He (Gibson) has been punished quite a lot. There are some lawyers who ought to be in jail for some of the things I’ve seen,” he concluded. But Horner favors reinstatement of Gibson’s license.
Also testifying on behalf of Gibson were Livingston Police Chief Roger Phillips, White County Sheriff Odie Shoupe, Cumberland County Grand Jury Chairman Clyde Cramer, Cookeville Police Chief Bob Terry and retired TBI Agent Bob Krofssik.
Krofssik was the lead investigator in the brutal murder of Lillian Kelley in 2003. The elderly Putnam County woman was stabbed twice and had her throat slit to keep her from telling authorities who robbed her of a small amount of cash and checks.
Chris Adams was later charged in the case after being identified as the man who cashed the dead women’s stolen checks.
Krofssik testified that Adams was not the original suspect in the case but that once identified in connection with the stolen checks, became the prime suspect.
“It was a slam-dunk case as far as I was concerned,” Krofssik testified. He added that the letters written by Gibson to Adams after Adams pleaded guilty and started serving his 35-year sentence did not cause him concern.
He admitted that he felt the plea agreement in a case that once had been mentioned as a capital murder case was “strange,” and he admitted not understanding the motive behind the plea bargain, but he was not bothered by the outcome, considering a 35-year sentence to be served at 100 percent.
Krofssik said the plea agreement was justified by Gibson because of concerns over Adams’ confession. Adams, during questioning, suggested that he might need to consult an attorney before submitting to further questioning, but ended up having a two-minute conversation with Gibson over the telephone, after which he gave his confession.
BPR panel chairman Roger Mannis recessed the hearing until Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. at which time Gibson’s attorneys are expected to present four or five more witnesses followed by response from BPR’s counsel.
Hearing evidence on the three-member panel with Mannis are Barbara Medlin and John Hollins Jr.