A criminal defense attorney is seeking the recusal of a state court judge after the judge reportedly provided training to potential witnesses in his court and conducted an independent investigation in a case pending in his court.
The motion was filed in late June by Savannah defense lawyer Cris Schneider in Effingham County State Court with regard to Judge Stephen Yekel. Schneider cites a handful of violations of the judicial code of conduct and has asked that another judge be assigned to his client’s case because Yekel demonstrated ‘bias and prejudice…placing into question his impartiality.’
According to the motion, Schneider became aware of “improper and disturbing statements evidencing bias against criminal defendants in an article appearing in the Effingham Herald.” Schneider also said Yekel “procured evidence to be used in the prosecution of [his client].”
Schneider’s client is charged with Driving Under the Influence, a misdemeanor offense, __ which is handled in Effingham County State Court. Judge Yekel is the only state court judge, serving in a full-time capacity for the elected position.
Effingham Herald Article
The motion to recuse Yekel cites a June 7, 2023 article in which the local newspaper attributed quotes made during an EMT and paramedic seminar to Yekel.
“As long as [compiling thorough reports about drawing a suspect’s blood and any other procedure they perform including detailing chain of custody] happens, then we will have what is necessary and essential to be able to prosecute that case.” (Emphasis added)
“If you are in trial, look at the jury, answer the questions asked by the attorneys and/or the court…You are going to give ‘yes or no’ answers, but you have a right to explain your answer in anything.”
“Don’t be concerned. Don’t be afraid…Nobody is going to jump on you. I’m not going to let that happen.”Yekel as quoted in the Effingham Herald article on June 7, 2023
Schneider argues in his motion that Yekel’s comments instructed EMTs on how to ‘help prosecute cases including what evidence “we” need and what evidence is essential to prosecute those DUI cases.” Citing two different judicial codes of conduct, Schneider said an impartial person would “conclude that Judge Yekel is not impartial to criminal defendants in DUI cases…”
- Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.10(a) – Judges shall not make, on any pending proceeding or impending matter in any court, any public comment that might reasonably be expected to affect is outcome or impair its fairness or make any non-public comment that might substantially interfere with a fair trial or hearing
- Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct Rule R 3.7 – Judges may engage in activities concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice, provided that doing so will not interfere with the performance of their officials duties or cast doubt on their capacity to impartially decide any issue
Guest Speaker Status at ‘Mandatory Training with Patrol Division and Speciality Units’ at Effingham County Sheriff’s Office
Schenider’s motion also contends that Yekel should be recused because he served as a guest speaker in his official capacity at the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office with regard to ‘his court and information on some problems that he has seen’ on February 24, 2023 and March 3, 2023.
Schneider’s argument is that the deputies in the training would be potential witnesses in misdemeanor criminal cases heard before Yekel, making the training improper.
Allegations That Yekel Sought Out Evidence to Be Used Against Schneider’s Client
The motion says that Schneider’s client, before retaining him, had a different lawyer. That lawyer learned that the Solicitor’s Office could not obtain the name of the individual who performed the blood draw on the night of the arrest, a person deemed ‘an essential witness for the State.’ The motion says that defense counsel learned that:
“Yekel had contacted the GBI, in order to secure the name of the blood drawer and then produced that name to the Solicitor’s Office. Due to the newly found evidence, defense counsel and the solicitor met with the Judge in chambers. While in chambers, [defense counsel] requested the blood drawer’s certifications from the Solicitor. Judge Yekel then picked up his office phone and contacted Wanda MDuffie, Director of Effingham Emergency Medical Services (EMS), requesting that she send a copy of the blood drawer’s certification.”
Schneider argues a recusal is necessary because “Yekel has both manifested an unfair bias and prejudice and placed his impartiality into question,” calling the judge’s statements referencing prosecuting cases ‘troubling.’ The motion says Yekel collected facts and collected evidence by reaching out to the GBI and then providing that information to the state.
- Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.3(c) – Judges shall not investigate facts in a pending proceeding or impending matter independently, and in making adjudicative decisions shall consider only the evidence presented and any facts that may be properly judicially noticed.
- Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.9 – Judges shall accord to every person who has a legal interest in a proceeding, or that person’s lawyer, the right to be heard according to law. Judges shall not initiate, permit, or consider ex parte communications, or consider other communications made to them outside the presence of the parties, or their lawyers, concerning a pending proceeding or impending matter…”
- Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.11(A) – Judges shall disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
The motion concludes with Schneider’s argument that the recusal of Yekel in this case is ‘compelled by the state interest in maintaining the public perception of the integrity of the judicial system.’
As of July 7, 2023, no further action had been taken on the case and court documents did not reflect that Yekel had recused himself or requested a hearing for an administrative judge to consider recusal.