Retrial Ordered in Sex Assault Case Where Judge Emailed Prosecutor During Trial

Original Case Details

An Allegan County Judge is under fire for emails uncovered that show the judge communicating privately with a prosecutor about a case she presided over during a jury trial. Allegan Circuit Court Judge Margaret Zuzich-Bakker emailed Allegan County Prosecutor Myrene Koch as witnesses testified in front of her and inquired about the answers she was hearing and about the general investigation of the case. The Allegan County Prosecutor responded to the initial email and continued to have substantive conversations about the case. The case in question was a multi-count criminal sexual conduct case. The defendant in the case was charged and convicted with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, and two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was later sentenced by Judge Zuzich-Bakker to a minimum of 20 years in prison for each conviction which run concurrently. When it was discovered Judge Zuzich-Bakker had privately communicated with the prosecutor’s office during the trial in question, an appeal was made to the court. Judge William Baillargeon decided in favor of the appellant and granted him a new trial. If you are facing an investigation or criminal charges related to accusations of sexual assault, then it is important that you speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Trial Judge’s Objectionable Emails

The emails exchanged between Judge Zuzich-Bakker and Prosecutor Koch were uncovered during a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request by Allegan attorney Michael Villar. Villar, a political opponent of Koch, ran against Koch for the county prosecutor seat and lost the election by only 17 votes. In general, a judge is not allowed to have ex parte communications about an active case with any party to a case in front of him or her. Ex parte communications are those that are had with only one party or side to a case. Judges and attorneys are bound by ethical rules to not have ex parte communications as the judge is supposed to be a neutral arbiter. A judge is not supposed to have private communications or conversations with anyone that is part of a case as they would, at the very minimum, be showing an apparent bias towards that side. In the present case, Allegan County Circuit Judge Zuzich-Bakker reportedly reached out directly to the county prosecutor and had the following discussion:

• Zuzich-Bakker in the initial email stated to Koch that she didn’t think the Michigan State Police trooper that testified in front of her did a good investigation, and asked Koch if they have detectives;
• Koch replied to the email stating that they do have detectives, but not on criminal sexual conduct cases. Koch further indicated that the trooper had been given additional training in the time after the investigation of the case in question;
• Zuzich-Bakker then asked why the complaining witness was not referred for a medical evaluation;
• Koch replied by saying that the reason was that basically that everyone in her office failed to notice the missing medical evaluation in the case.

The defendant in the case was subsequently convicted at trial by a jury. The Allegan County Prosecutor’s Office has countered these allegations by stating that the emails were never discussed with assistant prosecutor assigned to the case and that the emails never influenced the prosecution and did not help the prosecution.

Next Steps in the Case

The Allegan County Prosecutor’s Office has indicated that they are contemplating an appeal of this decision. The prosecuting attorney assigned to the case stated that a jury decided the case and that the defense has not made any showing the that judge was compromised in the trial or biased against them. The defense countered the prosecutor by stating that whether or not the judge was compromised is missing the point. The point in this case, the defense said, is that the judge interjected herself and tried to influence the case before her. Judge Zuzich-Bakker has been on the bench for approximately 10 years after serving 28 years as an assistant prosecutor. If the Allegan County Prosecutor’s Office does appeal this case, then they would have to do so in the Michigan Court of Appeals. There, a three-judge panel would decide whether or not to affirm the decision of Allegan Judge William Baillargeon granting the defendant a new trial. Theoretically, the case could then potentially make its way to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Any Further Questions?

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