A Lexington judge tossed a murder charge. The KY attorney general wants it reinstated

The state’s top prosecutor has stepped in to assist the Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney in its efforts to overturn a judge’s controversial dismissal of a murder indictment last year.

Attorney General Russell Coleman announced Tuesday his office appealed the dismissal of an indictment of a Lexington man charged with wanton murder for a July 2020 hit-and-run death.

Fayette Circuit Judge Julie Muth Goodman exceeded her authority by preventing the case from going to a jury, Coleman said.

In December 2023, Goodman dismissed the case against Cornell Denmark Thomas II, 37, who was accused of causing the car crash near Leestown Road that killed 50-year-old Tammy Botkin of Lexington.

In her dismissal, Goodman accused the Fayette Commonwealth Attorney’s Office of misconduct for a “pattern” of seeking harsher convictions against Black defendants.

Attorney General-elect Russell Coleman, November 16, 2023.
Attorney General-elect Russell Coleman, November 16, 2023.

What happened in the Thomas case

Botkin died in the July 3, 2020, crash. Lexington police said Botkin was turning from Boiling Springs Drive onto Leestown Road when her vehicle was hit by an SUV that was being driven “at a high rate of speed,” which caused her car to catch on fire.

Thomas tried to run before being caught by police and taken to the hospital, police said.

Botkin was pronounced dead at the scene.

Goodman dismissed Thomas’ case because prosecutors couldn’t establish that Thomas acted “wantonly or intentionally” during the incident, she wrote in December.

Prosecutors said Thomas was under the influence of drugs, which induced psychosis prior to the incident, but no evidence presented over the course of a two-year period could confirm that statement, according to Goodman’s 24-page ruling.

“The Commonwealth’s failure to give its own expert, Dr. Allen, all the evidence cannot be overlooked,” Goodman wrote. “… By correcting the report (and including new drug testing results), therefore, the Commonwealth would have had no basis to proceed with the charges.

“The Commonwealth’s failure to correct the report — which has misled this Court and would have potentially misled the jury — is evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.”

Fayette County District Court Judge Julie Muth Goodman
Fayette County District Court Judge Julie Muth Goodman

Coleman acknowledged Goodman’s findings in the press release, but asked the Court of Appeals to reverse her decision, and reinstate the indictment, saying Baird and her team are prosecuting the case “fully and fairly.”

“Now, it’s the jury’s role — and the jury’s alone — to decide guilt,” Coleman said. “We’re asking the Court of Appeals to fix this error, allow this case to go before a jury, and deliver justice for everyone involved.”

In regards to Goodman’s claims about selective prosecution, Coleman said they fall “far short” of the standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court and Kentucky criminal procedure.

Baird said she appreciated the attorney general for his support in appealing the court’s decision.

“I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling and the reasons she gave for dismissing the indictment,” Baird said. “Our prosecutors work hard to follow the law, upholding the rights of defendants and victims.”

Thomas case sparks recusals, delays in court proceedings

This spotlight from the AG’s office highlights an already contentious battle between prosecutors and Goodman’s court — which has seen three motions to recuse and two appeals filed to overturn her decisions — within the span of six months.

Baird sent a request directly to the Kentucky Supreme Court for Goodman to be disqualified from presiding over another murder case.

Since December 2023, the commonwealth’s attorney’s office has filed to have Goodman recuse herself from two additional murder cases, alleging the judge has a personal bias against the prosecutor’s office and could not be impartial.

“At this time, the Commonwealth does not believe that this Court can be fair and impartial to the Commonwealth on any case currently pending before it,” Baird wrote in a previous motion.

Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Kimberly Baird, October 9, 2023.
Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Kimberly Baird, October 9, 2023.

The commonwealth’s first request for Goodman to step down came just weeks after the Thomas dismissal in which Goodman accused Baird’s office of seeking disproportionately harsh punishments against minority defendants.

The ruling launched efforts by Baird to have Goodman recused from two other cases — and if she had her “druthers” Baird admitted she would have Goodman removed from all criminal cases.

Other motions where Baird has moved for recusal include the cases of Darryl Russell and James Hendron. Both cases are murder charges.

Russell, 53, was charged in March 2022 with the murder of 18-year-old Darian Webb, the son of Russell’s longtime girlfriend. His case is still pending. Goodman refused to recuse herself.

Hendron was convicted of murdering his son, Austin Hendron, on Father’s Day in June 2018. Goodman ruled he should get a new a trial at a June 6 hearing originally slated as his sentencing. Baird plans to appeal that decision.

Court of appeals overturns recent Goodman decision to release prisoner

If overturned, this would not be the first time Goodman’s decisions have been reversed by a higher court.

If a case is tried in district or circuit court, and the losing parties involved are not satisfied with the outcome, they may ask for a higher court to review the correctness of the trial court’s decision.

The Court of Appeals on June 5 reversed a decision by Goodman that allowed a man to go free who was originally sentenced to 42 years in prison.

Defendant Gregory Simpson filed a writ of habeas corpus — a submission by a detainee to question their detention after sentencing — who said he was being unlawfully detained.

At the time of his submission in 2023, Simpson was serving prison time for a 2018 conviction, but had amassed 10 charges going back to 1997.

In that span, Simpson would be released on parole and would go on to commit other low-level felonies. Because of his previous convictions, his punishments were enhanced consistent with the persistent felony offender statute, which can double or triple the maximum sentences for a crime.

Simpson argued in his motion that he was only supposed to serve a maximum sentence of 20 years. Goodman heard his case and released him from prison in January.

However, a warden who housed Simpson filed an appeal, saying Simpson misinterpreted the case law he cited. The court of appeals remanded Simpson back into custody.

Kentucky’s appellate court consists of 14 judges, two elected from each of the seven appellate court districts. The judges are divided into panels of three to review and decide cases, with the majority determining the decision.