In an unusual move that alarmed members of the state’s criminal defense bar, a Dare County judge charged and summarily convicted an assistant capital defender of contempt during a death-penalty trial last week. After rejecting the attorney’s requests for legal representation and a hearing, the judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail—the maximum allowed by state law.
Attorney Matthew Geoffrion had angered Judge Jerry Tillett weeks earlier by alleging bias during jury selection, according to sources familiar with the case. The Daily Advance reported that Tillett accused Geoffrion of being “willfully resistant to court instructions” and failing “to comply with court schedules.”
Geoffrion was one of three lawyers trying to secure a life sentence for Wisezah Buckman, who was convicted earlier last month of four murders stemming from a 2017 prison escape attempt in Pasquotank County. The trial had been moved to Dare County because of its notoriety—but that also meant that Buckman, who is Black, faced an all-white jury pool.
Buckman’s co-defendant, Mikel Brady, was sentenced to death in Dare in 2019, and Buckman’s lawyers believed the judge wanted to ensure the same result. They alleged that Tillett refused to remove jurors who indicated that they would not consider sentencing Buckman to life in prison—a violation of Buckman’s constitutional rights.
In an affidavit included in a motion asking Tillett to recuse himself, Geoffrion said Tillett used body language to encourage some jurors to walk back their death penalty support. Tillett disputed some statements attributed to him in the affidavit, and Geoffrion said any errors were unintentional, according to court filings.
After convicting Geoffrion of criminal contempt on October 30, Tillett stayed the sentence and suggested that the attorney could avoid punishment by apologizing. (He also denied a request from all three of Buckman’s lawyers to withdraw.) Geoffrion refused; retracting the affidavit might undermine his client’s appeals.
Just before closing arguments two days later, Tillett ordered deputies to arrest Geoffrion.
But state law effectively forced Tillett to let Geoffrion participate in closing arguments, so Geoffrion was quickly released. (It’s unclear whether the jurors in Buckman’s case saw Geoffrion in custody.) Geoffrion’s freedom was not long-lived, however. After the jury sentenced Buckman to death on November 2, Tillett again had Geoffrion arrested. Without another judge available to hold a bond hearing that would allow Geoffrion to remain free while he appealed, as state law requires, Geoffrion spent Thursday night in jail.
By then, Geoffrion had twice asked the Court of Appeals to stay the sentence. But he ran into a logistical roadblock: Tillett hadn’t entered a written order into the court file, so technically, there was nothing to appeal. (Sources said Tillett filed the paperwork on Friday morning.)
While Geoffrion was locked up, his colleagues contacted a judge in a neighboring county, who drove to Manteo, held a hearing, and released Geoffrion on an unsecured $2,500 bond while he asks the Court of Appeals to overturn the contempt conviction. It’s unclear how long it will take for the Court of Appeals to decide his case.
“Matt has an excellent reputation,” said Noell Tin, managing partner of the firm Tin, Fulton, Walker & Owen, who is representing Geoffrion in his appeal. “I keep hearing lawyers say Matt is the opposite of who you’d expect to be in this situation.”
This isn’t the first time Dare County’s chief superior court judge has flexed his office’s muscle. In 2013, the Judicial Standards Commission reprimanded Tillett for trying to oust the Kill Devil Hills police chief after the cops detained his son for an unspecified reason. Tillett’s “overly aggressive conduct” and “misuse of the powers of his judicial office … brought the judiciary into disrepute and threatened public faith and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” the Judicial Standards Commission wrote.
The North Carolina Supreme Court later blocked the State Bar from disciplining Tillett.
But Tillett’s beef with Geoffrion might ultimately benefit Geoffrion’s client, Buckman. If Tillett’s contempt verdict stands, Buckman’s appellate lawyers will argue that he had ineffective counsel at trial. If, however, the Court of Appeals finds that Tillett improperly jailed an attorney who accused him of bias, that will lend credence to Buckman’s claims that the judge was, in fact, biased.
As one legal source told The Assembly, “It’s a catch-22.”
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at email@example.com.