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Prosecutor Al Schmutzer defends Baumgartner guilty plea deal; regrets lack of jail time

9:12 AM, Dec 13, 2011   |    comments
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In the days since a TBI file publicly revealed the details of former judge Richard Baumgartner's criminal activity, many have criticized the plea agreement and sentence he received for felony official misconduct.

Among the recent critics of the agreement is the judge in the case, Jon Kerry Blackwood. Blackwood stated that he was not aware of the full details of the criminal investigation when he granted Baumgartner judicial diversion and sentenced him to two years probation.

"You don't wrap it up and say 'official misconduct.' I call it committing a crime," said Blackwood during a December 1 hearing where he granted new trials to the defendants in the Christian-Newsom murder case.

During court in March, special prosecuting attorney Al Schmutzer only mentioned portions of the TBI investigation regarding Baumgartner's relationship with drug dealer Chris Gibson. Many of the most salacious details of Baumgartner's years of drug abuse and sexual relationship with former Drug Court graduate Deena Castleman were not mentioned during the March proceedings.

Monday afternoon Schmutzer said he understands why many in the public feel like Baumgartner "got off easy."  However, he defended the decision to offer a plea deal to the now disbarred judge. Schmutzer also said he limited the case's scope to Baumgartner's dealings with Gibson rather than delving into the Castleman relationship for legal reasons.

"That official misconduct dealt with Chris Gibson. That was my choice. I chose Chris Gibson because I had a stronger case, I thought legally," said Schmutzer. "He [Gibson] was on probation at the time the judge was buying drugs from him. And as such, the judge [Baumgartner] had his thumb on him [Gibson]."

As for why the prosecution did not pursue charges for Baumgartner's illegal drug deals, Schmutzer said many of those charges would have been misdemeanors and his primary focus was on obtaining a felony conviction. Furthermore, the 12 month statute of limitations for many of the drug charges had already elapsed. Schmutzer said his other top priority was permanently removing Baumgartner from his position as judge as quickly as possible.

"I thought it was very important that we get a conviction and get him off the bench and get to looking into what extent he had damaged the criminal justice system there in Knox County," said Schmutzer. "We could not have publicly revealed any of the information that was in the TBI file up until that time, until we actually tried him, and he could have stayed on the bench."

During Baumgartner's sentencing in March, Schmutzer told Judge Blackwood that he disagreed with granting Baumgartner judicial diversion but he would not fight it. Schmutzer stated on Monday that he also disagreed with merely sentencing Baumgartner to probation because he preferred some sort of jail time or confinement. In fact, Schmutzer repeatedly claimed that he specifically asked Judge Blackwood to include jail time during Monday's early afternoon interview. Later in the day, Schmutzer contacted 10News to correct that statement, saying he had reviewed our online extended video footage of the sentencing hearing and that he only objected to probation without specifically asking for jail time.

Although Baumgartner's conviction was only related to his dealings with Chris Gibson, Schmutzer admitted that he could have presented other facts in the TBI file prior to sentencing. Schmutzer claims he was not prepared to present the other details in court because Blackwood notified him the morning of the plea hearing that sentencing would be conducted that day.

"If he [Blackwood] was really interested quite frankly in those things [other details of the TBI investigation], we could have had a sentencing hearing and wouldn't have had it the same day that we took the plea. Then given the state more time to prepare for it," said Schmutzer. "It caught me by surprise because he didn't tell me until that morning before we walked into court that we were going to do that."

Schmutzer said in hindsight the case would have benefited from a presentence investigation and presentence report. These investigations are common in cases involving a guilty plea or guilty verdict for felonies. According to Tennessee codes 40-35-205 and 40-35-207, the presentence reports can include many details that are unrelated to the actual verdict, such as prior convictions, mental history, or other "information relating to enhancement or mitigating factors which may affect the sentence imposed." This information could have included portions in the TBI file regarding Baumgartner's other criminal behavior.

Schmutzer pointed out that Blackwood did not request a presentence investigation (PSI) during proceedings in March.

"A judge normally orders a presentence hearing, not the state," said Schmutzer, who subsequently admitted that he could have requested a presentence hearing.

When asked why he failed to request a PSI from Blackwood when one was not provided, Schmutzer said, "Because he [Blackwood] was getting ready to sentence. Obviously, I felt like at the time [Blackwood] knew what he was going to do and had a good feeling about what he was going to do."

10News attempted to contact Judge Blackwood on Monday afternoon for comment about whether normal protocol was followed in the Baumgartner's case by failing to conduct a presentence investigation. Blackwood was not available and our calls were directed to Laura Click, the public information officer for Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts.

Click stated that a presentence report was not required in this case. T.C.A. 40-35-203 (b) states: "Where the sentence is agreed upon by the district attorney general and the defendant and accepted by the court, the court may immediately impose sentence as provided in § 40-35-205(d) and no specific sentencing hearing or presentence reports shall be required."

"In general, a trial judge must determine if there is a factual basis for a plea based upon the information provided by the parties. The district attorney determines what, if any, charges should be brought. The judge merely accepts or rejects a plea based upon the evidence presented in court," wrote Click.

While there is no clear explanation as to why the plea and sentencing for a case of this magnitude needed to be completed within a single working day, Schmutzer said he believes the end result would not have drastically changed by presenting more evidence prior to sentencing.

"I went after him [Baumgartner]. I got a felony. Like I said, the only concession I made was not to fight the judicial diversion," said Schmutzer. "The reason I did that is there would have been no [plea] agreement. If I was going to cut the guy slack, I would have given him a misdemeanor."

Schmutzer said he is unsure whether there is an ongoing federal investigation that could result in criminal charges against Baumgartner.  Some federal charges for various drug crimes are not subject to the state of Tennessee's statute of limitations.  Schmutzer said he was last contacted by federal authorities regarding Baumgartner shortly after the plea agreement in March.

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