I-TEAM: Cases Closed | Local judge makes thousands of charges disappear
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM is cracking open cases a local judge slammed shut before they ever made it to trial.
We found some were closed just because they were old. Others were closed because the suspect was never arrested, and that’s not all.
In the end, our deep dive analysis found thousands of charges disappeared.
MEREDITH ANDERSON EXPLAINS THE INVESTIGATION:
It all started when our I-TEAM first started investigating one case where the suspect had been on the run for years. The victim, Aspen LeBlanc, wanted to know how a judge could just dismiss a suspect’s charges after a grand jury indicted him on two counts of child molestation.
Then, we found LeBlanc’s case wasn’t the only one closed.
“It’s just, it’s hard knowing I’m not the only one in this situation now, too,” Aspen said, wiping away tears.
She was obviously upset about that, but Aspen never once got upset talking about Edguardo Coscia in our interview. That’s because she says she forgave him years ago.
“Not for him because he doesn’t deserve it. But for myself. Because I couldn’t keep harboring that hatred for him.”
She can’t forgive how a judge seemed ready to forgive both his charges of molesting her when she was a little girl because according to his order we found in court records, nothing has happened with the case since 2010.
There’s been no trial.
Coscia has never been arrested. It didn’t take the I-TEAM long to find out where he is.
He’s pretty active on multiple Facebook pages, but we also found something else. After sending open records requests to Clerks of Court in Richmond, Burke, and Columbia counties, we received lists of thousands of charges connected to other cases that were dismissed around the same time Coscia’s charges were dropped.
We had to go case-by-case and then comb through their corresponding records, so it took us weeks to weed through them all, but early on, the I-TEAM noticed a pattern.
Every single Superior Court case dismissal had the name of a single Superior Court Judge: Judge Wade Padgett.
News 12 sat down with Judge Padgett in 2009 when he was transiting from Columbia County’s Chief Magistrate Judge to a Superior Court Judge.
Judge Padgett told us back then, “If you deserve to go to jail, you will go to jail.”
He also said in that archived interview, “The problem is – we don’t enforce what we say we’re going to do. If we don’t intend to enforce it, then don’t say it. If you say it in a courtroom – if you make it an order – I expect you to comply with it. And if you fail to comply with that, I take it very, very seriously.”
But the I-TEAM found several cases where it appears Judge Padgett did not comply with orders he or other judges made.
Take Eric Dwayne Bennet, for example. A 2019 court transcript shows he was facing 40 years in prison for drug trafficking and weapons charges, but Judge Sheryl Jolly put it on the dead docket – or on pause – for six years.
If he met several strict conditions – like not getting arrested for violating any laws, moving out of the area, and turning in all weapons – the case could be closed on December 31, 2025.
Well before that date, we found Judge Padgett dismissed it, basically saying nothing has happened, so the case was closed. Just two weeks ago, we found Harlem Police arrested Eric Dwayne Bennet on drugs and weapons charges.
His address is in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, and his weapons charge is for a stolen gun. We found a separate case for 2016 involving armed robbery, aggravated assault, and weapons charges. The case was put on the dead docket just a few months later after the victim didn’t show up to court.
Case closed. We looked further and found other cases were dead-docketed because deputies stopped working for the Sheriff’s Office.
The I-TEAM found three child molestation charges were dead docketed on the promise the suspect would have no contact with the victims until December 2021.
Judge Padgett signed the dismissal seven months early with the seemingly cut-and-paste response that, we found, was pretty much identical to other dead-docketed dismissals. The I-TEAM found one rape case was dismissed, and the victim says no one ever told her.
According to Georgia law, that’s supposed to happen. Aspen Leblanc says no one ever told her, either.
She called about it when she noticed the suspect in her case no longer had an active warrant online.
“I’m at the same address that the, the crime happened at. Like, you’re telling me, you couldn’t find me? I got married at that courthouse. I’m there,” Aspen said.
Then, there are the dozens and dozens of cases the I-TEAM counted and entered into a spreadsheet where suspects were indicted on everything from shoplifting to trafficking and manufacturing meth, but they were never arrested.
So once again, the cases were closed. To be fair, there are several cases from the 1990′s involving misdemeanors, or cases where the suspect has died, or where victims no longer wanted to prosecute, but from what we found when reviewing the cases, those were not the majority.
Aspen says all of this has made her lose faith in the judicial system.
Judge Padgett declined the I-TEAM’s request for an interview for this investigation, but his judicial assistant sent the I-TEAM several emails where Judge Padgett discussed his plan to get rid of old cases.
In one memo dated April 10, 2021, he answers the question of why. He writes the following: “There are multiple reasons to choose this time to look at the open pending criminal docket. 1) We lost considerable available work time due to COVID and the judicial emergency declared in association with the pandemic.
2) The split of the circuit is fast approaching and there will have to be a reassignment of cases to the respective judges. Therefore, cleaning all of this up before the split makes a great deal of sense.
3) We have a new District Attorney and almost all elected officials would like to have an “audit” of their pending areas of responsibility.
4) We have a new Superior Court judge who has taken over Judge Annis’ caseload following a significant period of vacancy. Many of the other judges attempted to work on cases assigned to Judge Annis during the approximate 14-month period that the position was vacant.”
Judge Padgett goes on to say “the Superior Court Judges all agreed that addressing the existing caseload in all three counties would be helpful. I volunteered for the assignment.”
While the I-TEAM couldn’t find any other judges listed on the emails sent to us, we did find one staff attorney for one other judge, Judge James Blanchard, listed.
Everyone else works for the Public Defender’s Office, Clerk of Court, Probation Office, Augusta District Attorney’s Office, or court administration.
Still, this shows Judge Padgett told multiple people he was doing this and even provided lists. He asked people to speak up if any cases should remain open. The Court Administrator for the Augusta Judicial Circuit tells the I-TEAM that some cases had some discussion, but he doesn’t remember anyone objecting to any of the cases being dismissed.
“Did someone just put a bunch of cases in front of you and be like, you know, ‘These are all really old. Sign ‘em off?’ And you just didn’t care. So you just kept going?” asks Aspen.
In March, Judge Padgett was named on a short list of candidates to the Court of Appeals to the State of Georgia. The Governor’s Office is in the process of scheduling interviews.
As for Aspen, after the I-TEAM started asking questions and requested her case file, the newly-formed Columbia County District Attorney’s Office found a loophole, and a grand jury re-indicted Edgardo Coscia.
District Attorney Bobby Christine also tells the I-TEAM the “re-indictment was possible because the Judge dismissed WITHOUT prejudice, meaning the case could be brought back and prosecuted at a later date.”
We checked and found all the cases dismissed as part of our Open Records Request are dismissed that way. If you have an old, pending case, Aspen urges you to check on its status.
“I would go look at the court dockets and see if it still exists,” she said.
There could still be hope.
You can also check with case management to see if your case is open or closed. If you think your case was closed in error, call your local District Attorney’s office.
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