Crime

Motion to remove judge from Macon gas station killing case denied

Community activist Frank Dixon has been vocally critical of Howard Simms since the judge was allowed to drive home from a checkpoint where a roadside breath test showed his blood alcohol level was just above the legal limit.

Dixon’s father, 74-year-old Frank Reeves, is charged with murder.

Simms is the presiding judge in the case.

Reeves’ lawyer, Veronica Brinson, argued Thursday that Simms should be removed from the case for a series of reasons. One of them was that Reeves and Dixon had concerns that Dixon’s statements might have biased the judge.

Chief Bibb County Superior Court Judge Tripp Self ruled that Simms will remain on the case.

Reeves, who is confined to a wheelchair, is accused of fatally shooting 65-year-old Linda Hunnicutt outside a Murphy Express filling station on Gray Highway Dec. 4, 2012.

In a separate motion, set to be argued next week, Brinson is seeking to bar jurors from hearing Reeves’ statement to police that he thought Hunnicutt was trying to hit him with her car and only meant to scare her when he fired his gun.

She maintains Reeves has hearing and speech impairments and that police didn’t consult relatives -- his informal guardians who helped him make decisions -- before questioning him.

Reeves, who has suffered strokes, sat hunched over during much of Thursday’s hearing.

At times, he fell asleep.

SEEKING A FAIR TRIAL

Brinson said her client and his family have expressed concerns about Simms being on the case multiple times.

“I told them, ‘Let’s just give it some time,’ ” she said. “I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.”

Last week, the concerns resurfaced and spurred her to seek Simms’ disqualification.

She said Reeves told her as recently as Wednesday, “I don’t want that judge on my case. I don’t think he can be fair.”

In addition to concerns about Dixon’s criticism of Simms, Brinson cited Simms’ courtroom statements in other unrelated cases as possible signs of bias. She alleged that Simms “plays to the media.”

Brinson also said Reeves hasn’t been treated the same as other inmates who seek bond.

Although Reeves was at one time released on bond, he returned to the jail when family members couldn’t care for him. Brinson said Reeves had the mistaken understanding that he would later be released to live in a nursing home without another court hearing.

Simms subsequently denied a request to modify Reeves’ bond to allow him to live in a nursing facility but reinstated an order allowing him to be released to live with an adult family member who would provide 24-hour supervision or have an in-home care provider supervise him.

Another bond request still is pending.

During Thursday’s hearing, Self offered Reeves an opportunity to testify about his concerns, but Brinson declined the offer. She cited the courtroom needing to be outfitted to better accommodate her client’s disabilities and the media’s presence as reasons for keeping him off the witness stand.

A motion is pending in which Brinson has requested accommodations such as additional microphones and devices to help with hearing to be placed in the courtroom. A motion seeking to have the case moved from Bibb County also is pending.

Brinson offered instead to have Dixon testify, but the judge said Dixon’s opinions, from a legal standpoint, don’t matter.

MOTION DENIED

Prosecutor Mike Smith said Brinson’s motion was filed outside time limits set by the law. Motions to disqualify a judge must be submitted within five days of a lawyer becoming aware of potential bias.

He said the clock should have started ticking after Reeves’ bond hearing -- after the judge made any alleged concerning statements or after Dixon’s criticisms were aired.

Smith said Reeves’ $100,000 bond is lower than bonds typically issued for people accused of murder, and Reeves, because he was indicted within 90 days of his arrest, isn’t automatically entitled to bond.

“He’s probably been treated better than other similarly situated people,” he said.

Self cited both procedural and substantive flaws in Brinson’s argument in his ruling that Simms will remain on the case.

In specific regard to Dixon’s criticism of Simms, Self said the statements are protected by the First Amendment and don’t have bearing on Simms remaining on the case.

He said anyone could make public comments and then file a motion seeking to remove a judge as a form of shopping for a judge.

Speaking after the hearing, Dixon said he believes it’s unfair that Simms was allowed to drive home from the 2012 roadblock.

He has “undue influence in this community, and his propensity to use it is just a travesty,” Dixon said.

Simms has maintained he didn’t request special treatment. No criminal charges were filed.

Dixon said his father’s case is a high profile one that involves not just two elderly people but an elderly black man and a white woman.

“I just want my father to get a fair trial,” he said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

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