Raleigh, N.C. — A former Wake County District Court judge who resigned amid a criminal probe into backdated convictions in dozens of DWI cases said she never had any reason to doubt the credibility of her longtime colleague, a disbarred defense attorney who is now waiting to learn his fate for his role in the case.
"I trusted Mr. Crouch," Kristin Ruth testified Monday in the sentencing hearing for James Crouch, who was indicted in June on accusations that he altered court records to shorten or eliminate license suspensions in driving while impaired cases between 2007 and 2011.
Ruth signed approximately 50 orders changing the dates, she admitted, without reading them.
"I trust a lot of lawyers, and when they bring things to you, you have to, because we do such an exorbitant amount of work," Ruth said.
She was surprised on Feb. 20, 2012, she said, when she learned that she and Crouch were under investigation. When she called him about it, Ruth said, he admitted to what he had done and said he would clear her name.
"He said, 'You're going to never speak to me again. You're going to have to visit me in jail,'" Ruth said. "He said not to worry, that he would go to Mr. Willoughby the next day, tell him what he had done and that he would clear my name."
Less than three months later, Ruth stepped down after 13 years on the bench, and in July, she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to carry out her duties as judge.
"Did you actually believe that James Crouch would come forward and provide information to clear you?" Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby asked Ruth.
"I absolutely did," she replied.
"Did he ever come forward?" Willoughby asked.
"No, he did not," Ruth said. "It's been 287 days since this happened."
Crouch pleaded guilty last month to two counts of obstruction of justice and one count each of criminal conspiracy and altering court documents.
Sentencing was postponed until this week – it continues Tuesday – partly because the SBI found evidence that Crouch altered client records in an attempt to "thwart" the investigation – discoveries that reportedly caused Crouch's attorneys to accept a plea deal in the case instead of taking it to trial.
In many of the cases in question, according to Kanawha Perry, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, Crouch charged $750 to backdate DWI convictions, using a legal action to correct clerical errors called a "nunc pro tunc" order.
Ruth testified that it was a general practice in the Wake County Courthouse to handle the orders in open court with attorneys and prosecutors present and that she never knowingly signed such an order for Crouch.
"These were different, because they were slid into paper work instead of being brought forward in court," she said. "I did not realize that they were not my cases."
Michelle Daniel, a paralegal for Crouch who also faces charges in the case, testified that she prepared the orders, at Crouch's request, and would have Ruth sign off on them because she was friendly and kind.
"She was always the most accessible judge," Daniel said. "She never got mad about the amount of stuff we were bringing to her."
Daniel said Crouch also asked her – while the SBI probe was under way – to change some financial ledgers reflecting payments for the nunc pro tuncs and to delete files from the office computer system before he turned over his files.
Daniel also testified that she refunded three clients' payments in March, once the investigation into Crouch had been publicized, when the father of one of the clients called inquiring about the matter.
"I talked to Mr. Crouch, and he said, 'Refund them,’" Daniel said, noting that Crouch never did so for any nunc pro tunc orders prior to the investigation.
Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire, however, refuted what he called efforts by the prosecution to show that Crouch also stole money from his clients by not refunding them overcharges to their client trust accounts.
Nicole Beauchamp, a paralegal that worked with Crouch for years, said he cared about his clients and tried to help them, even if they couldn't pay for his services.
"Did making money drive James Crouch, or did helping people drive James Crouch?" Cheshire asked.
"I think definitely helping people," she said. "I think he enjoyed what he did."
Crouch was in tears for part of the testimony.
Ruth, his law school classmate and family friend, also cried as she described how the case tarnished her reputation as a judge and the work she did for the Wake County child support system.
"I don't know if words can really ever explain how this has affected me and my family and friends," she said. "But the one thing that this case or anything else can't take away from me is my character and my integrity, because that is mine."