A former top judge in northern Georgia was indicted on allegations of abusing his position to solicit sexual favors and using his influence with police to frame a woman who accused him of propositioning her, federal prosecutors announced Wednesday.
The indictment against former Murray County Chief Magistrate Judge Bryant Cochran accuses him of sexually assaulting a county employee, illegally searching the cellphone of another county employee and framing a woman who rejected his sexual advances. The suspected acts, prosecutors say, deprived the victims of their rights in violation of federal civil rights law.
The woman whom prosecutors say was framed had met with Cochran in April 2012 regarding a legal matter she wanted to pursue. In a lawsuit, she later accused him of being inappropriate at the meeting.
Cochran, 44, presided as chief magistrate from 2004 until he resigned in August 2012 amid a judicial ethics investigation that among other things was probing whether he illegally pre-signed arrest warrants. As chief magistrate, Cochran was responsible for appointing judges and assigning cases involving small claims, misdemeanors and warrants.
Prosecutors allege that Cochran retaliated against the claims of the woman who had met with him in April by telling police that she was carrying drugs in her car.
Three days before he resigned, Cochran had one of his tenants at a property he owned plant methamphetamine inside the car, prosecutors say. The day before Cochran's resignation, Murray County sheriff’s deputies pulled the woman over and searched her car but didn’t immediately find drugs.
Cochran’s cousin, a sheriff’s captain, looped the judge in on the situation. Prosecutors say that Cochran relayed to his cousin the drugs' exact location, where the deputies then found them. The woman was jailed, though charges were later dismissed.
The deputy who pulled her over and the sheriff’s captain eventually pleaded guilty to witness tampering. But Cochran first tried to get a witness not to testify against them, according to prosecutors.
“Cochran is charged with crimes that reflect that he completely abused the power and trust given to him by the people of Murray County,” U.S. Atty. Sally Quillian Yates said in a statement.
Cochran faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on one count of conspiracy against rights, three counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, and one count each of conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and tampering with a witness. The indictment identifies each of the victims only by their initials.
At an arraignment Thursday, Cochran is expected to plead not guilty, his attorney told The Times. Page Pate said that the allegations and evidence presented in the indictment are no different than what was said early in the investigation in 2012.
“We thought then that the allegations [were] particularly weak and they still are,” Pate said. “If they had a good case, they would have charged him a long time ago.”
A lawsuit brought in federal court by court clerks who accused Cochran of sexual assault was dismissed last year and has since be refiled in state court. Pate said he expects Cochran to fight the new civil case as well.
McCracken Poston, a lawyer who represents the woman who was implicated in the fake drug bust, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she looks forward “to watching Mr. Cochran avail himself of each and every constitutional right and privilege that he wanted to deny my clients.”