Murder suspect may walk |

Murder suspect may walk

Judge's sudden recusal may jeopardize 'speedy trial' requirement

Gary E. Salazar

— Appointing a new judge for the Thomas Lee Johnson murder trial is not the only obstacle in the case meeting Johnson’s right to a speedy trial is also an issue that will have to be resolved.

Because of 14th Judicial District Judge Joel S. Thompson’s decision to recuse himself from the murder case that was set to go to trial Oct. 29, questions arise about whether Johnson can be tried within the state required six-month time period.

“If the case does not go to trial Oct. 29, I will file a motion to dismiss the charges,” said Norm Townsend, Johnson’s attorney. “If we are successful, he walks.”

Johnson, 31, is charged with first-degree murder, criminal mischief and trespassing. He is accused of stabbing Lori Bases to death in

her Steamboat Springs apartment in May 2000.

Thompson removed himself from the case Tuesday because his live-in girlfriend was arrested on federal drug charges. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent connected to the case obtained the arrest warrant.

Because of Thompson’s decision, the district’s chief judge, Richard P. Doucette, is referring the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Doucette expects the state court administrator to eventually assign the case to a judge.

How long it will take to find a new judge for Routt County’s only murder case, however, is not known.

“We are in the process of making an assignment,” said Troy Singleton, a staff assistant to the state court administrator. “Check back with us in about two weeks.”

Officials within the state office are searching for a district judge from another district in Colorado to take the case, Singleton said.

According to state statutes, Johnson must be brought to trial within six months from the date he entered a not guilty plea to the charges. Johnson entered a not guilty plea the afternoon of May 18. After the pleas were entered, Thompson set the jury trial to start within the six-month requirement.

If the trial does not start as scheduled, Townsend said he is not willing to waive his client’s right to a speedy trial.

Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James said the speedy trial issue is a concern. However, there are exceptions within the law that would allow prosecutors to continue the trial outside the six-month period, St. James said.

Even if a new judge is appointed fairly quickly, it is not known if motions filed by Townsend can be ruled on by the new judge in time for the trial.

Prior to Thompson’s departure, the judge held three days of hearings the second week in August regarding evidence.

Thompson was in the process of examining Townsend’s and St. James’ arguments regarding what evidence should be allowed at trial when he recused himself.

Before the trial starts, the new judge would have to rule on 15 motions Townsend has filed to suppress evidence.

Before the new judge can even take up the motions, a ruling will have to be made regarding Townsend’s attempt to disqualify the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the case.

Townsend filed a motion Monday requesting to remove District Attorney Paul McLimans and his assistants from the case.

Townsend blames McLimans’ office for the Aug. 10 arrest of Thompson’s girlfriend, 36-year-old Billie Vreeman. The motion also claims McLimans’ office failed to supervise a Grand, Routt and Moffat County Narcotics Enforcement Team agent.

The motion contends DEA agent Donald Sperry obtained a search warrant for Vreeman’s arrest in an attempt to gain an advantage over Thompson.

During an Aug. 8 hearing, Sperry was informed by Thompson that Sperry would have to testify about a warrant the agent allegedly falsified to get records from a pay phone the murder suspect allegedly used.

Sperry was expected to testify Aug. 29 about the phone records that allegedly show that Johnson made a call to his ex-wife, Michelle Linnebur, in which he admitted to killing Bases. A police officer who said he was at Linnebur’s home at the time the phone call was made claims he overheard the admission.

McLimans has responded to the motion claiming Sperry is not an employee of his office and is not involved in GRAMNET investigations.

Townsend and McLimans both agree that all other pending matters in the murder case should be suspended until this motion is resolved.

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