I read a recent piece written by John Cole Vodicka in Classic City News and saw a comment on Facebook inviting folks to send a letter to the editor if they have a differing opinion or want to rebut what Mr. Vodicka wrote. One of the prosecutors in my office whom he references in the article approached me and said Mr. Vodicka’s version of events in a case she handled in State Court was not accurate. She pointed out that he attributed a direct quote to her when in fact it was something she did not say. So, I reviewed the article and took the step of requesting and reviewing the court transcript generated by the court reporter in the courtroom that day. After comparing Mr. Vodicka’s accounts with the transcript, I found his article contained incorrect and incomplete information.
The article in question is one in a series entitled “Bearing Witness” and was released on January 18th of this year. In it, Mr. Vodicka addresses several cases, including his reporting of the case I referenced above that occurred in State Court the previous Friday. The case at issue is found in a subsection entitled “COVID COVERUP AT OUR JAIL?”. In this section, Mr. Vodicka wrote the following:
And on Friday in State Court, it was announced that one misdemeanor defendant on the docket, Jeremiah C., was in jail and would not appear because he was “being Covid-quarantined.” He had just a few weeks left to serve in jail, his release date January 28. Because of his possibly being COVID-positive, his lawyer asked the judge to consider allowing him to get out of jail now. Argued the prosecuting attorney, “If he’s being quarantined, why would we want him out in the community?” Mr. C. is still in jail.
After reading Mr. Vodicka’s version of what happened in court, I reviewed the court transcript. According to the transcript, which provides the information communicated in the courtroom at that hearing, Mr. C. was serving a 90 day sentence for violating his probation. His attorney asked the court to modify Mr. C.’s sentence so he could serve the remainder of his time on weekends, which would allow him to work to support his child and to take care of his child’s mother who had been diagnosed with cancer.
At no time did the defense attorney suggest Mr. C. be released from jail because he was possibly Covid-positive as Mr. Vodicka reported. Instead, the argument in court was over whether the court should allow Mr. C. to serve the remainder of his time on weekends. According to the court transcript, the prosecutor responded by first arguing the defense’s reasons for converting the sentence to weekend confinement simply were not good reasons. She specifically said, “Obviously, someone who has Covid or potentially was exposed to Covid should not be caring for somebody that has cancer or anybody else for that matter” and “Also, I don’t think it’s a great idea for – especially for someone who is potentially been exposed to Covid to be coming in and out of the jail on weekends.” She then argued, “Secondly, this is Mr. [C.’s] 11th probation case. Most of them are for family violence offenses. He has not – to my knowledge, he has never completed FVIP and now he, you know, has a new violent offense. So I don’t – just don’t think that weekends are appropriate.” (It is important to note that the new violent offense mentioned is an allegation at this time and the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.) At the end of argument, the judge ruled:
All right. When I revoked Mr. [C.’s] probation back in December, the primary concern was his very serious criminal history, and I stand by the decision that I made. I am not going to modify that decision based on his history.
After reviewing the transcript of what actually happened in court in this case, not only did the prosecutor not say what Mr. Vodicka attributed to her as a direct quote, but the hearing did not happen the way he reported. Mr. Vodicka worded his version to lead the reader to believe Mr. C is still in jail only because he was potentially Covid positive, when in fact the court declined Mr. C’s request to serve the rest of his sentence on weekends because of his “very serious criminal history.”
I understand it is important to give Mr. Vodicka the benefit of the doubt because a lot of information is communicated by a number of different people during court. It could be possible Mr. Vodicka may have misunderstood or misheard what was happening with Mr. C’s case. So, I requested and reviewed the transcript of another hearing Mr. Vodicka reported on in State Court that day to see if it also included misinformation. The second hearing I reviewed involved a “David A” whose attorney was asking the court to convert his bond to an Unsecured Judicial Release. Mr. Vodicka claims that Mr. A. had been “charged with driving with a suspended license and violation of the open container law.” This statement clearly implies that these were the only charges associated with the bond in question. While it is certainly true that those were two of his charges, a review of the court transcript from the hearing shows Mr. Vodicka neglected to mention Mr. A’s case also included the more serious offenses, DUI and Obstruction. (It is important to note that the pending DUI, Obstruction, Suspended License, and Open Container charges are all allegations at this time and the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.) The fact that this information is in the transcript means that it was said in open court for everyone attending online and in the courtroom to hear, including Mr. Vodicka.
I would have been willing to believe that this was simply another oversight or a misunderstanding but for what comes next. Mr. Vodicka later states “the prosecutor recited Mr. A.'s history with alcohol and other driving offenses.” What the transcript shows is that the prosecutor cited to the court Mr. A’s three previous convictions for DUI as well as his pending DUI in another county. (Again, it is important to note that the pending DUI charge in the other county is also an allegation at this time and the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty.) In fact, the term DUI and the phrase “Driving Under the Influence” were used at least nine times during the hearing, first by the judge when addressing the case and listing the charges:
“Bail was originally set by Judge Patricia Barron in the amount of it looks like $4000 -- $5000 on a DUI, driving while license suspended, obstruction of a law enforcement officer, and open container.”
All parties, including Mr. A’s attorney, note that the primary charge is DUI. Shortly after telling Mr. A that he will not be allowed to drive while out on bond, the judge explains to Mr. A why he is ordering a portable alcohol monitoring device as a condition of his release:
“And so that we know that there is not going to be a concern even if you were to decide to drive a vehicle, I want to make sure that you're not drinking alcohol, so I'm going to have a SCRAM alcohol monitoring device as one of the conditions. And that's a condition that we would use frequently on a person that has got repeat driving under the influence charges. We would consider those a very high risk to reoffend and a high-risk offender.”
The fact that Mr. Vodicka refused to acknowledge that the Driving Under the Influence charge was really at issue in this hearing, not the suspended license and violation of the open container law as he wrote, indicates the omission was intentional. He apparently wanted the reader to believe the only reason the court did not immediately release Mr. A. from jail was because of a suspended license and an open container violation. After comparing his reports of these two cases with the court transcripts, I can only conclude that Mr. Vodicka did not mistakenly report what he saw and heard in court that day. Instead, Mr. Vodicka intentionally omitted and mischaracterized information to mislead your readers.
I wrestled with whether to write this letter. I have never submitted a response to a report or opinion in the news before and I do not plan to start responding every time I take exception with something someone writes or says. However, in this case, I decided to submit this to Classic City News specifically because Mr. Vodicka attributed a direct quote to a prosecutor in my office that did not occur. Additionally, he used that quote to further an incorrect and overall misleading rendition of how a case was handled by our office and the court. By writing his article and claiming he is part of a community program “which seeks to shine a light on what goes on in the Athens-Clarke County criminal courtrooms”, Mr. Vodicka has placed himself in a position of trust with your readers. No good can come from keeping these readers in the dark on the details that provide them a full, accurate account of what happens in court.
For anyone interested in watching court to gain their own perspective, not mine or Mr. Vodicka’s, our courtrooms are open to the public. If you feel uncomfortable attending in person because of current health concerns, you can view proceedings online. If you have any questions, feel free to call me on my cell phone at 706-614-2271. If you are in the courthouse and would like to meet with me in person, my door is open.
C.R. Chisholm, Jr.