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Public Notices

April 18, 2014

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Former Knox Judge Sentenced In Pill, Sex Scheme

AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, J. Miles Cary

Former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner leaves U.S. District Court in Greeneville after sentencing on Wednesday. Baumgartner has been sentenced to six months in federal prison for lying to cover up a scheme that provided him with painkillers and sex while he was in office.

Originally published: 2013-04-11 10:14:27
Last modified: 2013-04-11 10:15:47
 


BY KEN LITTLE

STAFF WRITER

Former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner was sentenced Wednesday in Greeneville federal court to six months in prison for lying about a scheme to get painkillers and sex from defendants under his supervision.

Baumgartner, 65, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge J. Ronnie Greer.

Baumgartner, Criminal Court judge from 1992 until he stepped down in 2011, was convicted in November 2012 of five counts of misprison of a felony at a trial over which Greer presided.

Jurors at the trial agreed Baumgartner lied to mislead authorities about his actions.

Greer had a difficult decision to make Wednesday. Federal prosecutors recommended a two-year sentence. Defense lawyer Donald Bosch asked for two years' probation.

In his years on the bench, Greer said numerous public officials convicted of wrongdoing appeared before him for sentencing, but Baumgartner was the first judge.

EARLIER MISCONDUCT PLEA

Baumgartner, 65, pleaded guilty in state court in March 2011 to felony official misconduct after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) found he had bought pills from a woman he placed on probation.

He received a two-year suspended sentence and judicial diversion rather than jail time.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Lewen Jr. and Zachary Bolitho pressed for prison time on the federal conviction Wednesday because, they said, Baumgartner violated the public trust and seriously disrupted the court system in Knox County.

Convictions in five cases there he presided over have already been thrown out. New trials have been ordered by an appellate court.

But Greer said that those factors should have been addressed in the state's 2011 case and weren't entirely relevant to sentencing Wednesday.

Nor was Baumgartner's addiction to prescription drugs, a habit he admitted caused him to commit "irrational" acts.

In a 20-minute statement before sentencing, a contrite Baumgartner said he was "greatly ashamed" for his actions.

He said he "very much enjoyed" his time on the bench, despite the last few years marred by drug addiction.

"I will forever be remorseful for any disgrace I've brought to that profession," he said. "It's a very painful thing."

At one point while talking about "the people I hurt," Baumgartner momentarily lost his composure.

"The hardest thing for me is that I can't do anything to fix it. I can't turn the clock back," he said. "There are some things you can't fix, and this is one of them."

POWERFUL ADDICTION

Baumgartner's pill addiction during his final two years on the bench was so strong that he was having sex and buying pills during courtroom breaks -- at times purchasing from convicts he had previously sentenced, the TBI investigation found.

His behavior called into question many of the cases he presided over, including one of Knoxville's most notorious murders.

Until Baumgartner stepped down from the bench and pleaded guilty to the count of official misconduct, few knew of his addiction.

When the serious nature of the judge's drug addiction became public, it cast uncertainty about whether Baumgartner had been sober enough to be sitting on the bench.

Jon Kerry Blackwood, a Knox County Criminal Court judge, was appointed to hear the former judge's cases.

Blackwood cited the TBI investigative file as grounds to overturn the convictions. Blackwood unsealed part of the file because it was relevant to the convictions he threw out.

The convictions of the four people found guilty for their role in the 2007 slayings of a young Knoxville couple were thrown out last year.

One of those defendants has already been retried. Three more will likely go to trial.

Channon Christian, a 21-year-old University of Tennessee student, and Christopher Newsom, her 23-year-old boyfriend, were kidnapped during a carjacking, sexually tortured and killed.

Others convicted in Baumgartner's court are also advocating for new trials.

COURT CLERK'S TESTIMONY

The one witness called by the prosecution Wednesday before sentencing was Joy McCroskey, Knox County Criminal Court clerk.

"In your decades of service, have you ever seen such a disruption in Knox County Criminal Court?" Lewen asked in relation to the challenges created by Baumgartner's actions.

"Not in matters like this," McCroskey said.

Baumgartner's TBI file said that he became addicted to painkillers he was prescribed for the treatment of pancreatitis caused by chronic alcoholism.

Baumgartner acknowledged being a pill addict but disregarded his doctor's advice to retire.

The file states that Baumgartner sought out multiple doctors to prescribe him oxycodone, hydrocodone and generic Xanax and Valium.

When the prescriptions weren't enough, he turned to convicts he had sentenced, along with their friends, according to the TBI investigation.

One of the suppliers was Deena Castleman, a woman who graduated from Baumgartner's drug court.

Castleman told authorities that she regularly supplied Baumgartner with pills and sex, sometimes during breaks from court.

She told TBI agents that she and the judge engaged in sexual activity several times in the judge's chambers.

Another judge sentenced Castleman in December 2011 to six years in prison for convictions that included possession of prescription painkillers, a charge indirectly related to Baumgartner.

The judge's misconduct charge in state court stemmed from his dealings with Chris Gibson, a felon on probation in Baumgartner's court.

Gibson said Baumgartner would come by his house every two to three days to buy pills.

'UNPLEASANT LIFESTYLE'

Baumgartner addressed his addiction to prescription pills Wednesday in his statement before sentencing.

"Let me tell you, it's no fun. It becomes a nightmare," he said. "It's a very unpleasant lifestyle, and you do irrational things.

"You look at my conduct during that period, and it's not unreasonable to say I did irrational and stupid things," Baumgartner said.

The former judge told Greer he "was not using common sense" and tried to get off pills, but was unable to do so.

"I don't tell you that's an excuse," Baumgartner said. "But I want you to understand why I did some of the things I did."

Greer accepted Baumgartner's statements of regret Wednesday as genuine. But the serious nature of the crimes merited the six-month prison term, the judge said.

STRUGGLE WITH DECISION

"I struggled with the decision somewhat," Greer said at sentencing. "Maintaining integrity in our justice system is not reflected in sentencing guidelines."

Greer said probation was not appropriate for Baumgartner, who sat with closed eyes and appeared detached at times during the nearly four-hour sentencing hearing.

Baumgartner was convicted of five counts of misprison of a felony, with six-month terms on each count to be served concurrently.

He was also given one year of supervised release by Greer, who did not take the recommendation of a federal probation report and impose a fine on the former judge.

Greer noted that Baumgartner lost his license to practice law, has numerous health problems and has no apparent means of support.

"Under these circumstances, especially in view of that term of incarceration, you do not have the ability to pay a fine," Greer said.

SENTENCE APPEALED

Bosch will file a motion asking for a stay in the six-month sentence; Greer will rule on that motion soon.

Baumgartner left the courthouse with his lawyers, temporarily free until assigned to a facility by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

During his statement, Baumgartner said he had sentenced hundreds of defendants during his long tenure as a Criminal Court judge, but found himself on the other side of the podium on Wednesday.

A married man, Baumgartner told Greer he thought about the impact his actions had on his family, the community, and family members of victims who now are compelled to go through a second trial of criminal defendants.

"I have thought about it on a daily basis for two-plus years," he said. "It's terrible."

Greer noted the high price Baumgartner already has paid for his actions, while remaining mindful of the damage he caused to the justice system and others.

"Imposing a sentence is the hardest thing about (being a judge)," he said. "I do wish you the best. I certainly hope you can get this matter behind you and get on with your life."

Baumgartner thanked Greer.

"I appreciate it. I truly am remorseful," he said.

The Associated Press provided some background information for this report.

 
For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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