Raleigh, N.C. — A grand jury on Tuesday asked the Wake County District Attorney's Office to investigate a Raleigh attorney and a former District Court judge about whether a dozen DWI cases were improperly handled.
The legal actions, called presentments, open the door for possible indictments but are not charges themselves.
In February, Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate District Judge Kristin Ruth after allegations from the district attorney about "unauthorized scheduling" and "unusual judgments" in the driving while impaired cases.
Ruth had entered an ex parte order that changed the judgment dates, effectively shortening or eliminating the driver's license suspensions for defendants, according to letters between Stephens and District Attorney Colon Willoughby.
Attorney James Crouch was the defense attorney on record in each case.
"While we are surprised at this unusual procedural step by the district attorney, a presentment is not a criminal charge," Crouch's attorney, Joe Cheshire, said in a statement. "As the investigation is ongoing, we will have no comment other than to urge people who follow this news to withhold judgment until all facts are known."
Joe Zeszotarski, an attorney for Ruth, said she is continuing to cooperate with the SBI investigation and the Wake County District Attorney's Office.
Legal experts say presentments are rare and are a way for grand juries to advise district attorneys on whether to proceed with a case.
"It's just a cautious way of going about it to make sure that the information is reviewed by someone other than just the DA's office," Willoughby said Tuesday afternoon.
He added that it's too early to determine if his office will recommend indictments and that it will depend on what the investigation reveals.
"It's obvious that the grand jury feels this is a very serious matter and deserves some serious attention, and that's the way we intend to treat it," he said. "I hope that we can move this along fairly quickly, because it's an important matter, and I would hate for it to be looming.
The grand jury asked that two people who work for Crouch, Elizabeth Michelle Daniel and Christina Nicole Daniel, also be investigated.
Ruth stepped down from the bench May 18, acknowledging that she signed numerous orders for Crouch but did not read them because she trusted him.
Her resignation, she said, was necessary "to maintain the integrity of the judicial system."
Claims of misconduct against Crouch first surfaced in court documents in January, when Willoughby accused him of misleading a judge and an assistant district attorney to move a DWI case involving a 16-year-old boy three weeks ahead of schedule.