St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida granted a new trial today to murder suspect Gregory Muse, who challenged his conviction by a jury in the court of heroin addict Michael Cook.
At a hearing on Oct. 30, Haida said, “I cannot say with the certainty that I need that Gregory Muse received a fair trial.”
Haida had previously granted a new trial to William Cosby, another murder suspect who stood trial in Cook’s court.
Cook presided over Muse’s trial on March 12 and 13, two and three days after he found the dead body of judge Joe Christ in the Cook family hunting lodge near Pittsfield.
Public defender Erin Conner moved for a new trial in April.
In May, drug agents arrested Cook and charged him with heroin possession.
In August, Conner amended Muse’s motion to claim Cook’s addiction tainted the trial.
She argued that State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly should have disclosed to Muse that federal prosecutors were investigating Cook.
Conner also argued that Kelly should have filed motions to continue the trial and substitute another judge for Cook.
In September, assistant state’s attorney Deborah Phillips answered that Conner didn’t identify any error that Cook committed.
She wrote that disclosure might have compromised the investigation.
On Oct. 21, Conner wrote that the state may not withhold material evidence without violating due process.
“Cook had slurred speech during the reading of the jury instructions," Conner wrote.
“Had Defendant known that Cook’s capacity was in question, Defendant would have moved to substitute Cook.
“A fair trial presumes that one party does not have information concerning the judge’s capacity that the other party does not have.”
She wrote that Kelly has allowed withdrawal of guilty pleas from defendants who did not go to trial.
“By objecting to Defendant’s request, the state is penalizing defendant for contesting guilt and exercising his constitutional right to trial,” Conner wrote. “Cook had an ethical obligation to recuse himself.”
At today's hearing, Conner argued for Muse while he sat beside her in a jail jump suit.
Conner said the appearance of impropriety alone was enough to warrant a new trial.
"There should be no question of a judge’s capacity,” she said.
She said the state could have substituted Cook without disclosing why.
“Judges have to observe high standards of conduct,” she said. “There is enough to call into question the capacity of the judge.”
Phillips replied that the evidence against Muse was overwhelming.
She said the appearance of impropriety was not enough to warrant a new trial.
“There is simply not enough called into question," Phillips argued.
Haida asked her about a Supreme Court rule that requires judges to disqualify themselves in proceedings where their impartiality might be questioned.
Phillips said, “I can’t speak for judge Cook but the fact that he did not disqualify himself cannot be looked at it in a vacuum.”
“You have to look at the totality of the circumstances,” she said.
Haida said he considered the facts and read the transcripts.
He said his ruling was not a criticism of the prosecutor’s office or its failure to disclose the investigation.
“It was a situation that was not comfortable to be in," Haida said.
Then he ruled in Muse’s favor.
Observers in the gallery included Lovie Ransom-Ewing of St. LouisCounty, mother of murder victim Correy Ransom.
She said she still does not know who shot her son.
She said she hopes a new trial will bring out the truth.