An independent judge said this week that an Effingham County State Court Judge won’t be recused from overseeing a DUI case after filings to remove him were filed by defense.
The controversy arose after Judge Stephen Yekel 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 cited a handful of alleged violations of the judicial code of conduct and asked that another judge be assigned to his client’s case because Yekel demonstrated ‘bias and prejudice…placing into question his impartiality.’
But an independent judge assigned to consider the case denied Schneider’s motion this week, on grounds of both untimely filings and a lack of admissible evidence submitted to support the claims.
In an order signed July 17 by Judge Billy Tomlinson, who was appointed to consider the complaint by the Executive Committee of the Council of State Court Judges, said the following:
With regard to the newspaper article on a training session for EMTs and paramedics:
Tomlinson wrote that there was no evidence provided in the Motion to Recuse that the training session with medical personnel took place or that the statements quoted in the article by Yekel were actually made. Tomlinson said the newspaper articles ‘constitute inadmissible hearsay.’ He went on to say that the defense “could have obtained an affidavit from an individual to attest to the fact that such a training session took place and to any statements that were made at such session,” but did not.
With regard to allegations of procuring evidence/conducting his own investigation:
Tomlinson noted the timeliness of the attempt to disqualify Yekel from the case. Uniform Superior Court Rules require that motions to recuse be filed within five days of learning of the alleged grounds for disqualification. In this case, the defense learned of the alleged independent investigation on May 26, 2023 but did not file a motion until June 22, 2023.
With regard to the mandatory training session at the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office in which Yekel would be the guest speaker and discuss “information on some problems he has seen [in his court]:
Tomlinson said “There is no evidence to support that this training session took place, other than the e-mail, or, if it occurred, what was discussed at the session.” He once again deemed in inadmissible hearsay saying the defense “certainly could have obtained an affidavit from an attendee to the session,” but once again did not.
“Instead, he does not name the individual who provided a copy of the alleged e-mail, requests a hearing on the Motions or even seeks leave to compel the testimony of any individual within the Traffic Division of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office who would be able to not only corroborate that any such session took place, but also attest to any alleged interactions between Judge Yekel and any of the participants of the alleged session.”
The motion was subsequently denied and the case was placed back on the trial calendar in state court before Judge Yekel.