A federal judge is formally confirming what he's already said several times: The introduction of racially charged tape recordings is not grounds for a mistrial in the fraud trial of Pilot Flying J's former president and three sales employees.
"As the Court has held, the evidence was properly admitted and the jury has received clear and concise instruction on the permissible and impermissible uses of the evidence," US. District Judge Curtis L. Collier wrote in an order filed Tuesday. "Because the evidence was properly admitted and the jury was properly instructed, admission of the evidence did not render the trial unfair, and a mistrial is not warranted."
Lawyers for former president Mark Hazelwood, Scott Wombold, Heather Jones and Karen Mann objected to the playing of the tape snippets last month during their trial in Chattanooga.
Hazelwood's attorney Rusty Hardin argued the content, which included racial epithets by several unidentified people, insults aimed at the Cleveland Browns and a request by Hazelwood to play a racist song sung by David Allan Coe, was so inflammatory it destroyed any chance of him getting a fair trial in the jury's eyes.
The evidence offered by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Trey Hamilton and David Lewen was the most controversial and drew the most attention during the trial that started in early November. They convinced Collier it was relevant to introduce it to counter defense claims that Hazelwood was a dedicated Pilot employee with a solid reputation.
The other defendants said the evidence had nothing to do with them and shouldn't be introduced by the government. They told Collier it was prejudicial to present it at the trial for all four when it only applied to one person -- Hazelwood.
Collier instructed jurors before the tapes were played to only consider their value in Hazelwood's case. He said they could weigh whether the content reflected on Hazelwood's character.
A former Pilot employee recorded the conversation in October 2012 while cooperating with the government as part of an investigation. The recordings were made at the lake house in Rockwood of John Freeman, then a leader on the Pilot sales team.
In his ruling this week, Collier reiterated his stance that he took care of any potential prejudice against the other three defendants by telling jurors not to consider it. And he said the tapes were relevant as to Hazelwood's character.
The defense will almost certainly use the tapes as grounds for an appeal if there are convictions.
Jurors began deliberating fraud charges against the four Feb. 7. Deliberations are continuing this week.
WBIR, the News Sentinel and other media organizations have sought release of the taped snippets as well as transcripts of them. Collier has so far not granted the request.