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Recommendation: don't notify defendants about judge-attorney relationship

More than 400 defendants represented by public defense attorney Kim Cornwell during her entire tenure at the Fayette County Public Defender’s Office may not be notified of a potential conflict brought on by her relationship with former Fayette County Superior Court Judge Paschal A. English Jr.

Brian Cavan, an independent attorney who investigated the relationship at the request of the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council, today recommended against notifying the defendants through a letter. He noted that several defendants have already filed appeals citing the alleged affair and also that inmates, particularly “jailhouse lawyers” were already aware of the allegations of an affair between Judge English and Mrs. Cornwell.

Cavan said he was unable to substantiate any sexual relationship had occurred between English and Cornwell beyond the one incident in which they were discovered in the middle of a sex act by a sheriff’s deputy in October 2008 in a parked car in a subdivision on the outskirts of Fayetteville. English tendered his resignation prior to officials' confirming the "parking" incident with Cornwell, but she didn't resign until a short time later, having initially been put on paid leave during the course of the investigation.

The public defender council took no formal action on Cavan's report and did not discuss the matter once Cavan's presentation concluded.

Cavan said the “incident” discovered by the deputy was the only substantiated evidence of any potential sexual relationship that might have occurred between the judge and defense attorney.

Of the 420-plus cases that Cavan reviewed, only six went to trial, resulting in one acquittal and three other defendants who got a sentence less than was recommended by the Fayette County District Attorney’s Office, Cavan said. All the other cases were either dismissed or ended with guilty pleas, which were “consistent with other cases being handled by both the public defender and private attorneys in the circuit," Cavan said.

Cavan said defendants represented by Cornwell could seek to file an appeal if they choose and perhaps attempt to get someone to testify under oath about what they know about the relationship, “but I don’t think they will tell you any more than what you are hearing today.”

Cavan’s investigation involved informal interviews with a variety of people all over the Griffin Judicial Circuit including assistant district attorneys, Cornwell’s co-workers in the Fayette Couty Public Defenders Office, judges and other attorneys, including some attorneys who were involved in cases involving a co-defendant represented by Cornwell.

Cavan also spoke to the gravely ill former Fayette County Chief Public Defender Joe Saia, who was able to talk about what he had done in the invesigation “and what he knew about the matter,” Cavan said. Saia passed away just before Christmas, having been hospitalized since the summer while on vacation in North Carolina.

The cases Cavan examined included those dating from the time Cornwell was allowed to represent clients on her own from May 2007, well before the October 2008 "parking" incident with English, and the susbequent cases she was in charge of prior to the incident.

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