It will not be a Monroe County judge who tries the case of Vauhxx Booker, a former Bloomington resident who two and a half weeks ago was charged by special prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp with battery and criminal trespass.
On Tuesday afternoon at a scheduled hearing, Monroe County circuit court judge Valeri Haughton announced that she would be recusing herself from the case.
Leerkamp was appointed to handle the charges of Booker’s two alleged assailants, which include battery and criminal confinement. She charged Booker, after a restorative justice process did not come to a successful resolution.
One of Leerkamp’s court filings pegged the timeframe for the collapse of the restorative justice process as exactly a year after the incident: “on or about July 4, 2021.”
The charges against all three men arose in connection with an incident that took place a year ago on July 4, near Lake Monroe. Booker described it as an “attempted lynching.”
A back-and-forth between Haughton and Booker’s attorney, Katherine Liell, drew out the fact that all the other Monroe County judges had also recused themselves.
That means it will be the Indiana Supreme Court that decides which judge will hear Booker’s case. Tuesday’s hearing could have been the occasion of the initial hearing, when Booker would have offered a plea.
That will now wait until it is determined who the judge will be.
Special prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp had petitioned Haughton to assign Booker’s case to Lance Hamner, out of Johnson County.
Hamner is the same judge who is hearing the cases against Booker’s accused attackers, Sean M. Purdy and Jerry Edward Cox, II. The two were charged with criminal confinement, based in part on video footage of Purdy pinning Booker against a tree.
Through his attorney, Booker objected to the assignment of Hamner to hear his case.
One argument against the assignment of Hamner to the case was based on the idea that special prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp had no jurisdiction to charge Booker, and therefore no jurisdiction to request the assignment of a special judge.
Another argument was based on Criminal Rule 12, which Liell said the special prosecutor had not followed, because Leerkamp had not asserted by affidavit, in good faith, that the current assigned judge had a personal bias or prejudice against the state.
In her remarks before she announced her recusal, Haughton addressed the question of bias and prejudice. Those were the grounds on which Purdy, through his attorney David Hennessy, had sought to intervene in Booker’s case to prevent Haughton from hearing it.
The motion to intervene was based in part on Rule 2.11 in the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct. The rule covers situations where a relative of the judge has more than a trivial interest that could be substantially affected by the proceeding.
Hennessy’s motion alluded to a public statement made by Haughton’s daughter, Bloomington city clerk Nicole Bolden, in support of Booker.
Haughton said that last year, when she and other Monroe County judges had recused themselves from the cases of Booker’s alleged attackers, it came in the national and international context of heightened sensitivity to racially motivated crimes. That sensitivity was driven by the Minneapolis police killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, she said.
As a result of that context, many local officials had issued public statements, Haughton said. Those local officials included Bloomington’s city clerk, Haughton said. Bolden attended Tuesday’s scheduled hearing.
Haughton rejected the idea that, under the circumstances, Rule 2.11 would require her recusal.
Haughton said it was appropriate for her to recuse herself to avoid any appearance of bias or prejudice—but stated she did not have any bias or prejudice in the case.
Because she was recusing herself, Haughton said, Purdy’s motion to intervene was moot.
If a judge outside of Monroe County had to be selected, Liell’s preferred path was to use the local rules that describe a way to select a judge from Monroe County’s same district. Hamner’s home county is Johnson County, which is not in Monroe County’s same district.
Haughton left it up to the Indiana Supreme Court to decide the judge. She noted that the facts and circumstances of the three cases were the same. But she pointed out that she had no control over which judge the Supreme Court would choose.
Haughton said it’s a mistake for a case to be tried by anyone other than a trier of fact. Haughton said it’s unfortunate that this case has been tried in the press and hopes that that doesn’t continue.
Outside the justice center building after Tuesday’s scheduled hearing, Liell and Booker gave some additional detail to the end of the restorative justice process. (Restorative justice is a system that seeks to rehabilitate offenders by reconciling them with their victims.)
Reacting to a reporter’s question about the reason Booker “pulled out” of the restorative justice process, Liell said Booker did not pull out of that process. “Mr. Booker offered to meet with his assailants on July 4, on the one-year anniversary to conclude—if they could—a type of of resolution,” Liell said. “And they had holiday plans and couldn’t make it,” Liell said.
Tuesday afternoon’s hearing was held in Room 301, the courtroom at the top of the stairway of the Charlotte Zietlow Justice Center.