UNITED STATES NEWS

Ethics panel investigating Oklahoma judge using cellphone during murder trial, sheriff’s office says

Jul 21, 2023, 12:04 PM

CHANDLER, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma judicial ethics panel is investigating a new state judge who can be seen on courtroom video scrolling through social media and texting on her cellphone throughout a murder trial, according to a local sheriff’s office.

Security video published by The Oklahoman newspaper shows Lincoln County District Judge Traci Soderstrom texting or messaging for minutes at a time during jury selection, opening statements and testimony in the trial for a man charged in the beating death of his girlfriend’s son.

Sgt. Aaron Bennett of the county sheriff’s office declined to provide the video to The Associated Press, saying it is part of an ongoing investigation by the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints. Taylor Henderson, the council’s director, said its work looking into accusations of misconduct by judges is secret by law and that she could not comment on whether it is investigating. Soderstrom declined to comment to The Oklahoman because the verdict in the murder case could still be appealed, saying judges are prohibited from discussing pending cases. She did not respond to a request for comment from the AP. In the video, Soderstrom, 50, can also be seen checking Facebook during the trial, which began last month in Chandler, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Oklahoma City, according to The Oklahoman. At one point, Soderstrom searched for a GIF, an animated image.

The judge was sworn in on Jan. 9 after being elected in November. Her four-year term expires in January 2027.

The trial ended in a second-degree manslaughter conviction for Khristian Tyler Martzall in the 2018 death of Braxton Danker. Prosecutors had asked jurors to find him guilty of first-degree murder.

Bennett said cameras are placed in courtrooms for security. He said the sheriff’s office did not provide the video to The Oklahoman.

Sheriff Charlie Dougherty told the newspaper that he provided videos from the trial to the council at its request.

District Attorney Adam Panter said he reviewed the video after getting a tip from courthouse personnel. He said he found the judge “spent hours of the trial” texting and scrolling on her cellphone.

“It is both shocking and disappointing,” he told the newspaper. “Jurors are banned from using cellphones in the courtroom during trials because we expect them to give their full time and attention to the evidence being presented. I would expect and hope the court would hold itself to the same standard required of the jurors, regardless of the type of case.”

Panter said he never saw her using the phone. The videos show that Soderstrom held the phone in her lap and below the top of the judge’s bench while using it or set it down in an open drawer.

Defense attorney Velia Lopez said Soderstrom did a great job, and she never saw the judge on the phone. Jari Askins, Oklahoma’s administrative director of the courts, declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said the conduct of judges is governed by the Code of Judicial Conduct, which states: “A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” The code does not specifically mention the use of mobile phones.

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Ethics panel investigating Oklahoma judge using cellphone during murder trial, sheriff’s office says