Judge testifies, apologizes
Hearing 1st step toward Supreme Court ruling
But that final say won’t come until fall — and could drag into next year.
Williams, a 22nd Circuit jurist had his day in court last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Berkeley County Judicial Center in front of a 9-member Judicial Hearing Board.
The board consists of 3 circuit judges, a senior status judge, a family court judge, a magistrate and 3 public members, all appointed by the State Supreme Court. Judge Michael Lorenson of the 23rd Circuit was the only board member in the courtroom. The rest were connected via the Internet.
The hearing board will decide findings of fact and interpret the law, making recommendations to the State Supreme Court on disciplinary action if it upholds any of the charges.
Despite a life dedicated to the law, Williams allowed his driver’s license and registration to expire, but continued to drive, and on different instances failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign and failed to wear a seatbelt.
In addition, on 2 occasions he apparently walked out of the Moorefield Walmart without paying for the items he purchased. He returned and paid for the items when notified. Videos of Williams at the Walmart self-checkout shown at the hearing showed him talking to people and being distracted.
The Judicial Investigation Commission originally filed charges against Williams in October concerning a traffic stop last July 11 by Moorefield policeman Deavonta Johnson. Johnson testified that he had observed the judge with a cell phone in his hand while behind the wheel.
On the 1st day of the hearings, Johnson’s body cam video of the incident was shown. The body cam footage was available on YouTube. Williams argues with Johnson, claiming he could not be charged because he was merely holding the cell phone, not speaking on it.
During the traffic stop, Williams called Lt. Melody Burrows, who was the commanding officer on duty at the time of the traffic stop, twice, complaining about the fact that he was pulled over and Johnson didn’t know the details of the cell phone statute.
Burrows told Johnson at the time to not write Williams a ticket and let him leave and he drove off. Burrows testified that she did not know Williams’ drivers license was expired.
Williams made numerous phone calls after the stop. That night he drove to the home of Moorefield Mayor Carol Zuper. Zuper testified that the judge was upset. She reported he said she needed to straighten the “boys” in the police department up.
She said boys was not a racial term, saying when you’re an older person you refer to younger people as boys or girls. The state’s counsel, Teresa Tarr, had pressed Zuper, Johnson, and Moorefield Police Chief Stephen Riggleman, who also spoke with Williams the night of the traffic stop, and was there to testify, about using the term “boy.”
Johnson, who is African-American, couldn’t remember being called boy and Riggleman echoed Zuper’s opinion that he thought the comment referred to the relative youth of his department, not anything racial. The body cam recording was indistinct as to whether Williams said boy or son.
Williams’ lawyer Mike Benninger of Morgantown asked State Police Corporal Eric Vaubel about Williams’ behavior, in light of the judge’s demonstrated anger on the body cam video, when Vaubel gave him a warning about his registration being expired.
Vaubel said the judge was polite and courteous. Both overdue documents and fees associated with them were paid by Williams.
Judge Charles Carl of the 22nd Circuit testified that Williams behavior at the traffic stop “was out of character” and not how he acts in court. Benninger asked him if he felt the traffic stop incident might jeopardize the integrity of the judicial system. Carl said no and he supports Williams.
“He just had a bad day,” Carl said.
But the racial accusations against Williams continued to be made into Day 2 of the hearing. Benninger fought against them by having Pastor Daniel Sterns of the New Dale Church in Baker testify. The pastor, who is African American, said he had known Williams his whole life and would even let him preach to his congregation when he was unable to do so.
The pastor said the judge’s anger demonstrated in the body cam video “was not his finest moment” and added the judge was extremely remorseful. He said the incident had humbled the judge and put him in a better place.
Also on the 2nd day of the hearings Williams testified. He said after Johnson’s testimony the day before he apologized to him face to face for his behavior on the video. He stated his behavior was “unbecoming as a human being.”
He sent letters of apology to the Moorefield Police Department and others. He said that he had been working a lot of cases back to back on the day of the police stop- he was suffering from stress.
On the 3rd day of the hearing, procedures for how to move on were discussed. Proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law from both sides are due to the Judicial Hearing Board by Aug. 31. The recommended decision of the Hearing Board is due 60 days after briefs are submitted.
If the parties consent to the recommended decision, it is submitted for entry of an order consistent with the decision. If the Court or the parties do not agree to the Hearing Board decision, the matter will be set for briefing and oral argument before the full Supreme Court, which would then issue a decision.
The consequences Williams faces for judicial misconduct include admonishment, public reprimand or censure, fines or unpaid suspension for up to a year on each violation of the code.
In addition, the charges include alleged violations of professional conduct. Those carry separate penalties that can include suspension of Williams’ law license for up to 5 years.