Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Charges Against Suspended Judge

The web page of the Indiana Supreme Court recently reported:

The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications has filed disciplinary charges against suspended LaPorte Superior Court Judge Jennifer L. Koethe.  The Commission alleges Judge Koethe deliberately omitted and misrepresented facts to police about a December 2008 shooting at her home.  The Commission also alleges that she asked a police officer to destroy evidence relevant to the official investigation into the shooting.  The Commission alleges those actions violate numerous canons of the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules of Professional Conduct.

The Commission’s investigation into Judge Koethe’s actions surround a December 22, 2008 shooting at her home where she received a superficial wound to the scalp. At the scene, Judge Koethe told police she accidently shot herself and did not know the location of the gun.  Officers located two guns inside a laundry basket in the bedroom closet.  Lab tests later showed one gun had been fired.  At the hospital, Judge Koethe told detectives she and her husband had been arguing and she had retrieved the handgun because she wanted her husband to believe she was contemplating suicide.  She maintained the shooting was accidental and said she thought the gun was unloaded. After speaking to detectives, she told a different police officer whom she knew well about a note she had written to her husband before the shooting.  She then asked the officer, words to the effect of, “Can you make this go away? or “Get rid of it.”  The note was later found by police in the bedroom closet.

During the police investigation of the shooting, Judge Koethe gave two taped statements.  In the first statement, Judge Koethe deliberately omitted the fact that she wrote the note to her husband.  She also claimed she thought the gun was unloaded because she had removed the magazine.  However, in the second taped statement, Judge Koethe altered her account to track her husband’s initial statement to police.  She stated that the gun had been unloaded when she first picked it up because the couple had unloaded the household guns several days earlier in anticipation of being out of the home.  During her second statement, Judge Koethe denied any knowledge regarding the whereabouts of the gun and note after the shooting.  Judge Koethe’s husband, Stephen Koethe, later admitted to police that he hid the gun and note in the bedroom closet at a time when Judge Koethe was in the room.

In May 2009 a grand jury returned a felony indictment against Judge Koethe for Attempted Obstruction of Justice.  When the felony indictment was filed, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended Judge Koethe with pay.  Having investigated the incident, the Commission has now filed three counts of judicial misconduct against Judge Koethe.  These counts are separate from any criminal charges filed in an Indiana trial court.

The Commission’s “Notice of the Institution of Formal Proceedings and Statement of Charges” was filed with the Indiana Supreme Court on December 10, 2009.  The seven-page Notice and Charging document is attached.  The 2008 and 2009 Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct can also be found in attachments accompanying this press release.  The charging document provides the circumstances and specific charges against Judge Koethe; generally, they include the following: 

  1. Count I centers on Judge Koethe’s conduct in deliberately withholding or misrepresenting pertinent information during her taped statements.  It alleges Judge Koethe violated Canon 2A of the 2008 Code of Judicial Conduct and Rule 1.2 of the 2009 Code of Judicial Conduct which requires judicial officers to avoid impropriety and to act in a manner promoting the public’s confidence in the judiciary.
  1. Count II centers on Judge Koethe’s request to a police officer that he destroy a handwritten note that was potential evidence in the investigation.  It alleges Judge Koethe violated Canons 1 and 2A of the 2008 Code of Judicial Conduct, committed willful misconduct unrelated to the judicial office that brings the office into disrepute, and engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.
  1. Count III centers on Judge Koeth’s request to a police officer that he destroy a handwritten note that was potential evidence in the investigation. It alleges Judge Koethe violated Rules 8.4 (b), (c), and (d) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  The rules require attorneys not to engage in criminal acts reflecting adversely on their honesty and not to engage in conduct involving deceit or misrepresentation.

Judge Koethe has the opportunity to file an Answer to the charges with the Supreme Court within twenty days of receiving the charges.  After the Answer is filed or twenty days has passed, the Indiana Supreme Court will appoint three Masters (Judges) to conduct a public hearing on the charge that Judge Koethe committed judicial misconduct. 

The Commission on Judicial Qualifications is the 7-member group that investigates alleged ethical misconduct by judges.  Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard chairs the Commission.  The Indiana Supreme Court has final authority over judicial discipline.

The court's suspension order is linked here. (Mike Frisch)

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