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Judge blamed in woman's motion for new trial

The woman, convicted of manslaughter, claims Judge Chet Tharpe had improper separate talks with lawyers on both sides of the case.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2000


TAMPA -- Attorneys for a woman convicted of manslaughter claim she should get a new trial because a Hillsborough circuit judge held separate one-on-one discussions with prosecutors and a former defense attorney in her case, according to a motion filed Friday.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe "engaged in conduct specifically prohibited by the Code of Judicial Conduct and by case law," the motion argues. As evidence, it cited a statement Tharpe gave last year to federal investigators.

Court rules require judges to discuss case issues in the presence of both the prosecution and the defense. But the end result, the motion claims, was a violation of the constitutional rights of Stephani Tanner, now serving a 17-year sentence for the manslaughter of her girlfriend Charlotte Malloy in 1996. The motion seeks a new trial or sentence reduction.

The judge's attorney, Norman S. Cannella Sr., called the allegations "hogwash."

The motion treads ground already covered by a federal grand jury investigation into a former high-ranking state prosecutor and his relationship to one of Tanner's defense lawyers. The defense lawyer had represented the prosecutor in an unrelated personal-injury action.

The focus of the grand jury investigation was unknown, but allegations of evidence tampering in Tanner's case were involved. Last year, the investigation concluded without any charges being filed against the prosecutor, Curt Morgan, or the defense attorney, Eddie Suarez.

A copy of Tharpe's statement to federal investigators was attached to Friday's motion. In it the judge, with Cannella at his side providing legal counsel, describes a 1997 conversation Tharpe had with Suarez in his chambers one afternoon after the Tanner trial had concluded for the day. Tharpe's bailiff was close by, and people were walking in and out of the room.

According to the statement, the judge told Suarez he was surprised that Suarez had commissioned a demonstration of the .22-caliber rifle that had killed Malloy in front of the jury, without knowing whether the bullets would stay in the gun or fall out. That was a key element of whether Tanner knew the gun was loaded, and whether the shooting was accidental.

According to the judge, Suarez replied, " "I knew that the bullets would stay in. . . . We had tested the gun with various bullets. . . . We used the bullets that would stay in the gun.' "

Tharpe's lawyer said Friday he didn't think there was anything questionable about such a conversation.

Tharpe mentioned his conversation with Suarez to a state prosecutor the next day, Tharpe's statement recounts, and state prosecutors commenced a criminal investigation into possible manipulation of evidence. No charges were filed.

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