Raleigh, N.C. — Former Wake County District Court judge Kristin Ruth, who was indicted in a scheme to alter court records on driving while impaired cases, pleaded guilty Monday to a misdemeanor of failure to discharge the duties of her office.
Ruth broke down several times during her testimony in the two-hour hearing in Wake County Superior Court, saying she accepted responsibility for failing to scrutinize improper orders that were brought to her for signature.
"They were not legitimate orders,” she said. “They were not mine to sign.”
Under the terms of her plea agreement, Ruth, 55, will not seek elected public office and will continue to cooperate with the state’s investigation into the matter, which includes the indictments of two other defendants.
James Crouch, the defense attorney of record in the cases under question, was indicted on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count each of altering court records and criminal conspiracy.
Elizabeth Michelle Daniel, a paralegal in Crouch's office, was indicted on one count each of obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy.
The indictments allege that evidence of blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 or higher was wrongly suppressed in seven cases and that the convictions of 39 other drivers were back-dated, meaning that some might have been spared a license suspension or had a shortened time without a license.
In a statement announcing her resignation in May, Ruth said she trusted Crouch and he misled her by asking her to sign court orders that differed from how he had described them.
Ruth reiterated those feelings during Monday’s hearing before Judge Donald Stephens, repeatedly saying she signed the orders without reading them because she trusted Crouch, whom she has known for years. He had been in her courtroom numerous times, and she knew his wife and family.
“I absolutely trusted James Crouch because I had no reason not to trust him,” she said. “There would be no way he would bring an inappropriate order to me. In my mind, they would be legitimate.”
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby presented evidence gathered by Kanawha Perry, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation. Perry said he reviewed files and Department of Motor Vehicles records for 40 to 50 cases and conducted interviews with DMV employees and the defendants.
Perry testified that Ruth “back dated” the sentencing dates on several cases and that convicted drivers were given “shortened or reduced” periods during which they could not drive.
For example, driver Kevin Gillespie was convicted on a DWI charge and sentenced in August 2010 but never actually had his license suspended, according to Perry.
Perry testified that after Ruth was given the case in July 2011, Gillespie was given a new conviction date of April 2010 with the notation that his license had already been suspended when it had not.
Perry said Ruth also ordered suppression of breath tests in some cases.
When Ruth’s attorney asked her to describe the impact her resignation had on her after serving more than 13 years on the bench, she broke down.
“It has been a life changing event,” she said. “There has been a void in unfinished business…having to leave has been a very difficult process.”
Ruth said her goal when elected in 1998 was to be a “judge that made a difference,” and said it was an honor to serve the citizens.
“I’m a farm girl from Kansas,” she said, crying softly. “Who would have thought that I could have been a judge in Wake County.”
Stephens said Ruth became "a victim of her own trusting nature" who violated her oath and abandoned her role as gatekeeper.
"Judges are supposed to conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates to everyone that justice does not play favorites," he said. "If a judge fails in the role as a gatekeeper...the integrity of the court system is completely compromised and the public's trust in the system is lost."
Stephens also lamented her departure, saying the court lost a good judge. His comment drew applause from those in attendance.
Sentencing will be held at a later date.