Spotlight on Kings County judge after ruling

Case back in Tarter’s court after appeals court reverses conviction
2014-04-15T08:28:00Z Spotlight on Kings County judge after rulingBy Seth Nidever Hanford Sentinel
April 15, 2014 8:28 am  • 

HANFORD — It’s Round 2 for Kings County Superior Court Judge Donna Tarter after being heavily criticized by an appeals court.

The 5th District Court of Appeals, in a ruling released in January, chastised Tarter for the way she handled the case of Adrian Wayne Griffith, who was tried in 2011 on charges of child molestation.

Before the closing arguments, Griffith tried to fire his attorney, Michelle Winspur, after he observed her stumbling and found out that she had a few days earlier been escorted from the courtroom for being intoxicated. Winspur was arrested in the parking lot for driving under the influence of alcohol, and some jurors may have seen it happen.

Tarter denied the defendant’s request to fire Winspur and go with Marianne Gilbert, a court-appointed attorney who was filling in during Winspur’s removal and arrest.

A few days later, Gilbert moved for a mistrial on the grounds that Winspur had been drinking throughout the trial and that some jurors may have observed her getting arrested.

Tarter denied the motion on the grounds that it was “untimely.”

The next day, the case went to the jury, which delivered a guilty verdict. Before sentencing, Griffith, with a new private attorney, asked for a new trial on the grounds that Winspur had been inebriated and had given him an ineffective defense.

Tarter denied that motion, and the jury sentenced Gilbert to 10 years in prison.

The appeals court ruled that Tarter improperly failed to look into the drunkenness allegations and also failed to examine the possible jury-tainting problem of people seeing Winspur’s arrest.

The court sent it back to Tarter’s court for a do-over, which started with a bail hearing on Friday.

Reactions from defense attorneys not involved with the case ranged from mild to harsh criticism of Tarter’s behavior in the first trial.

Dennis Beaver, a Bakersfield defense attorney who writes a regular column for the Sentinel, blasted the judge.

“[Tarter] needs to be removed to some other line of work,” Beaver said. “This is really, really bad stuff.”

Tarter could not be immediately reached for comment.

Fresno defense attorney Roger Wilson called a criminal defendant’s right to pick his or her lawyer “pretty sacrosanct.”

“I think the judge should have looked into [Winspur’s drinking problem],” Wilson said.

Wilson said it’s “rare” for an appellate court to overturn a conviction by finding that the judge abused his or her discretion during the trial.

All of which raises the question: If Tarter applied an improper legal standard in the first trial, why is the case back in her courtroom now?

Actually, according to Wilson, that’s fairly standard procedure.

“They give the judge a chance to remedy their error,” Wilson said, adding that, the second time around, “[The judge] is going to pay closer attention to the details of a case.”

When she made her decision to deny Griffith’s requests, Tarter may have been reluctant to delay or dismiss the case because of its unsettling nature and because it was nearly finished when Griffith asked to replace Winspur, according to Wilson.

“Judges are reluctant to do that,” he said. “The case is ready to be handed to the jury.”

“Fact wise, it’s a pretty stressful case,” Wilson added, noting the child molestation allegations. “I’m sure it’s something that went through her mind.”

Daniel Martin, a new attorney who appeared on behalf of Griffith Friday, indicated that he and his partner Charles Magill, will be watching Tarter closely.

Martin said that he can ask Tarter to recuse herself from the case or file a formal motion to switch to another judge.

“We hope the judge can be fair,” he said. “At least while we’re sitting in front of [Tarter], we [will] consider our options carefully.”

Copyright 2015 Hanford Sentinel. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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