A senior judge has denied a request for the recusal of the presiding judge in Elwyn Crocker Sr’s death penalty case in Effingham County.
Crocker faces a host of charges pertaining to the deaths of Elwyn John Crocker, Jr. and Mary Frances Crocker, both of whom were found buried in the backyard of the family’s home in late 2018. Elwyn Jr. had been missing for more than two years and authorities say Crocker and four others kept the two children in dog kennels, naked and deprived of nourishment and other basic care.
Defense attorneys appeared before Judge Robert W. Guy Jr. back in March to argue that Judge F. Gates Peed should be removed from the criminal case because he also presided over the family court matter involving the surviving minor child in 2018 and early 2019. Those civil proceedings detailed allegations which would not be included in the criminal case, but the bell, defense attorneys said, could not be unrung.
Motions to Recuse Judge Peed
Jerilyn Bell and Samuel C. Wood of the Capital Defender’s Office filed motions to have Peed recused from the case under the federal and state constitutions as well as Georgia law and the canons of judicial conduct. Their motions stated that in such a case, “recusal is required.”
The 42-page motion outlined arguments based on Peed overseeing a civil delinquency hearing involving Crocker, a minor child, and DFCS. Official court proceedings in the criminal case, however, began after the civil proceedings.
The defense attorneys did not allege wrongdoing on the part of Peed, but rather that in acting in the interest of the minor child, the Court was forced to draw conclusions and serve as a finder of fact. Those unavoidable acts, attorneys say, impact Peed’s ability to be fair and impartial as Crocker attempts to avoid the death penalty.
From the motion:
“The complexities of the juvenile case have created an irreparable conflict with Mr. Crocker’s death penalty case. By this court making findings in the best interest of [redacted], the applicable standard in juvenile court, it was compelled to engage in fact-finding and legal analysis that prevents this Court from being able to set aside the juvenile court experience in Mr. Crocker’s death penalty case.”
The Motion included heavy redactions to protect the facts from the juvenile proceedings, but stated that on the day after the discovery of the bodies of Elwyn Crocker, Jr. and Mary Frances Crocker, Peed “made findings that credit the truth of the criminal charge…In doing so, not only has the Judge formed an opinion contrary to the presumption of innocence, but he has credited evidence from necessary State witnesses in the criminal case.”
Attorneys also argued that the DFCS matter, though proper, crossed the line on the independent obligation of the Court to shield himself from extrajudicial information. They cited specific “unrepudiated negative character evidence.” They also said that the appearance of bias is great, particularly because the civil proceedings began before criminal proceedings for bond, arraignment, and the like.
Attorneys asked Judge Peed to voluntarily recuse himself from the criminal case, though Peed did not and subsequently asked an administrative judge to appoint another judge to rule on the matter. Judge Robert W. Guy of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit was appointed to preside over the recusal.
When defense attorneys appeared in court on March 10, they also asked Judge Guy to conduct the recusal hearing in a closed setting and further limit access to much of the information contained in the filings about the juvenile children. Judge Guy refused to remove the media from the courtroom, but did agree to seal the unredacted Motions for Recusal.
Chief ADA of the Effingham Office Brian Deal, said in court that the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office took no position on the matter.
Ultimately, Judge Guy issued no ruling on March 10 and instead gave defense attorneys until the end of March to file additional briefs and paperwork pertaining to the unredacted files.
Decision on Recusal
Judge Guy signed an Order on May 3, which was filed in Effingham County Superior Court on May 9, denying the Defense’s Motion to Recuse Judge Peed from the case. No reasons were listed in the final order.
Much of the Judge’s Order references other filings under seal, meaning the public cannot review them, because they contain “factual findings and conclusions of law that concern this restricted juvenile court information.” Judge Guy wrote that the “harm that would result from the dissemination of this confidential information, if not otherwise sealed, clearly outweighs the public’s right of access under the totality of the circumstances.”
The prosecution of Crocker, his wife Candice Crocker, her mother Kimberly Wright, Wright’s boyfriend Roy Prater, and Candice Crocker’s brother Mark Wright has been stymied by procedural slow downs and judicial backlogs following the state’s announcement of its intention to seek the death penalty.
Read a timeline of the case here.