Dec. 8—Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Howard has denied allegations of bias levied against him by the county prosecutor in the handling of a death penalty trial that ended in a hung jury.
On Nov. 1, during a hearing in the quadruple West Chester Twp. homicide, Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser asked Howard to recuse himself from the retrial of defendant Gurpreet Singh. Howard declined and Gmoser filed a request of disqualification with the Ohio Supreme Court.
Last week, Howard's attorney fired back with a 15-page response denying any bias and stating Gmoser's disagreement with the judge in his rulings in the Singh case "do not provide grounds for disqualification."
It is now up to outgoing Chief Justice Maureen O'Conner to make a ruling on the disqualification request.
Attorney Christopher Weber said in the response, "Every aspect of (Gmoser's) argument is wrong. Judge Howard does not have any bias toward the petitioner or anyone else in connection with the Singh case."
Weber pointed out in the response that some "personal attacks" by Gmoser in the affidavit do not warrant disqualification.
On Oct. 21, after a three-week trial with nearly two weeks of testimony and 14 hours of deliberation, Howard declared a mistrial in Singh's trial when the jury indicated it was hung and did not believe any further deliberations would serve a useful purpose. The 40-year-old is accused in the 2019 killing of four of his family members.
Gmoser found fault with Howard's decisions over replacing jurors and a transcript requested from the deliberating jury. Gmoser also said said Howard's "qualifying bias is manifest in his making demeaning sexual jokes in chambers and failing to conduct the trial with proper courtroom decorum in a capital case."
Gmoser also alleges Howard failed to preserve the record for appeal of possible juror misconduct and demeaned the seriousness of the case by not maintaining proper courtroom decorum.
According to Gmoser, Howard should have removed feuding jurors that resulted in a hung jury.
Howard declined to replace jurors with alternates knowing two jurors were at odds and not deliberating, the prosecutor said. Gmoser also found fault with Howard's decision not to give the jury a requested transcript of a DNA expert, but instructed them to rely on their "collective memories" of that testimony.
Gmoser said in the affidavit that Howard made crude jokes in chambers in "mixed" company that were sexual in nature and had an offensive plaque displayed in his chambers.
In the response, Weber pointed to proper legal procedures followed by Howard when the jury appeared to be hung and the fact that he interviewed all 12 jurors individually in the presence of both a prosecutor and defense attorney to determine if deliberation was actually taking place.
Howard found that although there was tension in the jury room that had been confrontational and emotional at times, there had not been any jury misconduct, Weber wrote in the response.
"Judge Howard also found juror 83 was following the law, recognizing that not agreeing with everyone's views on the evidence does not mean that a juror's ability to perform their duty is impaired," Weber said.
The plaque in Howard's courtroom was an inside joke with his staff and was among many items including photos of his wife and stepdaughters and mementos. The plaque was never in the courtroom had has been removed, Weber said.
"Judge Howard's comments or stories in chambers with counsel present were not intended to offend anyone and he apologizes if they did. He never made comments or told stories in court or in the presence of the jury. Neither the petitioner (Gmoser) or any of the state's counsel raised any concerns of a 'hostile environment' during the trial proceedings in the Singh case. Judge Howard will in the future refrain from any attempts at humor with counsel in in-chambers conferences," Weber wrote in the response.
Also noted in the response that courtroom security issues alleged by Gmoser were not raised during trial.
Weber said "these courtroom security issues are generally the responsibility of the Butler County Sheriff's Office, which Judge Howard could have addressed had it been brought to his attention during trial proceedings, which they were not."
But any courtroom security issue does not in any event demonstrate "bias against the state," Weber added.
Singh is charged with four counts of aggravated murder for allegedly shooting and killing his wife Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his in-laws, Hakikat Singh Pannag, 59, and Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt-in-law, Amarjit Kaur, 58, at a West Chester Twp. apartment on April 28, 2019. He faces the death penalty if found guilty.
Attorneys David Washington and Jeremy Evans, Singh's new defense team are scheduled to be back in court Jan. 11 for a pre-trial where a new trial date may be set. They are court-appointed after Singh's regained attorneys withdrew from the case because he can no longer pay them.
Prosecutors said Singh murdered his family by shooting them all in the head after a longtime affair he was having and a strained relationship with his in-laws over money from land owned in India.
The defense said Singh is innocent and the killings were part of a professional hit due to Pannag's financial woes and a dubious land contract deal in India with the "land mafia." They say three masked men broke into the apartment with baseball bats and Singh ran for his life. When he returned, everyone was dead.
Read more about the mistrial and Singh's case at journal-news.com.