Chief public defense official picked as newest circuit judge
Robert “Mack” Crawford’s path to the bench hasn’t been your typical one.
Reared on a farm in the rural Pike County hamlet of Concord, Crawford started adulthood in agribusiness and has sold mules and been in the antique business, among other ventures. Oh, and he notched 20 years as a small-town lawyer in Pike County, the last 16 years of which Crawford served in the Georgia legislature representing Pike, Upson and Lamar counties.
That political streak ended when he was appointed by Gov. Sonny Perdue three years ago to head up the state’s Public Defender Council. In that position, Crawford has traversed the state to testify in a number of capital murder cases.
And so when news came last week that Crawford was appointed as one of two new Superior Court judges for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, he got a number of well-wishes from about 70 plus judges whose courtrooms he has been in.
In fact, that experience has shown Crawford that while some things work well in certain courtrooms, they may not hold up as well in others.
Crawford said he realizes he and his fellow judges are being asked to shore up some bad feelings left from the resignation of their predecessors: former Superior Court Judges Paschal A. English Jr. and Johnnie L. Caldwell Jr. Both resigned within four days of each other in April.
Caldwell soon after admitted that he made inappropriate remarks towards female attorneys and later it was alleged that he initiated inappropriate physical contact with a Peachtree City divorce attorney.
English tendered his resignation four days after Caldwell, and it ultimately was made public that he had a sexual relationship with an attorney for the local public defender’s office, creating an ethical quandary with the potential for re-opening a number of criminal cases in which the attorney, Kim Cornwell, represented clients in front of English.
“I think the people here want the stability back from the bench,” Crawford said. “I think they want the trust in the system here.”
Crawford said while he’s not as well-known in Fayette County, he has a “tremendous amount of friends” here and he’s looking forward to getting to know the people here.
His role on the bench will involve a “learning curve” Crawford said, but he has courtroom experience in various criminal and civil matters from his 20 years as a self-described “small town attorney.”
When he graduated law school in two years and started up as an attorney, he was only the fourth attorney practicing in the rural Pike County area.
“In a small town, you have to do whatever walks in the door to make a living,” Crawford said, referring to the variety of cases he handled, which also included appointment to represent indigent clients.
Crawford thinks his job as a new Superior Court judge will become smoother once he gets to know the attorneys here and they get to know him better. It also helps that all four of the circuit’s Superior Court judges will be working together to insure a certain amount of continuity in the process so things won’t be as different depending on which judge is handling a given case.
It also works in the circuit’s favor that each county has excellent clerks of court, Crawford said.
For years the Griffin circuit has had a reputation for stiff sentences for criminals, but Crawford said he is hoping to weigh punishment options based on the circumstances of each case with an “approach of being redemptive.”
That includes evaluating the options of “what’s the best outcome for everybody concerned, the defendant, the state, law enforcement, everyone,” Crawford said.
“I think you have to look at that and try to apply a dose of common sense,” he said. “And if there is in some way a redeeming quality in someone I think it’s up to a judge to weigh all that.”
That applies not just to criminal defendants but also to parties in civil matters such as divorces and the like, Crawford said.
As for his political career, Crawford will face the voters in 2012 for a potential second term and if he is to successfully run for office, he almost likely needs to win over a good chunk of Fayette voters even though he’s well known in the other three counties in the Griffin circuit.
And when election time comes in November 2012, Crawford already has a trick up his sleeve that has served him well: Ralph the Republican, a life-size fiberglass elephant who helped him gain notoriety the first time he ran for the legislature. Crawford was shocked he won the race, and he and Ralph have been running mates ever since.
As for his own Republican bona-fides, Crawford lays claim to reining in expenses in the notorious death penalty case against Fulton County courthouse shooter Brian Nichols who killed a Superior Court judge, court reporter and sheriff’s deputy as he fled the courthouse in 2005 from a rape trial in which he was a defendant.
Nichols also was convicted of killing then-Fayette resident David Wilhelm, an off-duty federal agent who at the time was renovating a home in Atlanta for his family.
As director of the state’s public defender council, Crawford says just five of the state’s 31 capital murder cases have “outside attorneys,” which cost taxpayers above and beyond the attorneys on staff at each circuit’s public defender office.
As a Superior Court judge now, Crawford realizes he is being entrusted with a very prominent position.
“I am humbled to have been given this opportunity by the governor,” Crawford said.