Court Digest

New Hampshire
Ex-prison officer charged in death of handcuffed psychiatric patient

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A former corrections officer was charged Thursday with second-degree murder in the death of a patient at New Hampshire’s prison psychiatric unit nine months ago.

Matthew Millar, 39, of Boscawen, is accused of kneeling on Jason Rothe’s torso and neck for several minutes on April 29 while Rothe was face-down and handcuffed in the secure psychiatric unit at the state prison in Concord. The unit treats inmates in need of acute psychiatric care, those found not guilty by reason of insanity and those — like Rothe — who haven’t committed crimes but are deemed too dangerous to remain at the state psychiatric hospital.

According to court documents, Rothe, 50, was committed to New Hampshire Hospital in 2019 because of mental illness and transferred to the prison unit in 2022 out of concern he posed a risk to himself or others. Shortly after his death, investigators said Rothe died after a physical altercation with several corrections officers and that an autopsy was inconclusive. On Thursday, the attorney general’s office said Rothe’s cause of death was combined compressional and positional asphyxia.

Millar made an initial appearance Thursday in court, where his attorney said he intends to plead not guilty. He was ordered held without bail pending a hearing Feb. 14.

Prosecutors allege that Millar acted recklessly in causing Rothe’s death after he refused to leave a “day room” in the psychiatric unit. While officers initially offered Rothe snacks and tried to talk him into leaving, they eventually decided to forcibly remove him.

In court documents, investigators said all of those involved had been trained on the use of force and interacting with inmates and patients suffering from mental illness, including specialized training about asphyxia. But the restraint Millar used is expressly contrary to that training, investigators said.

Six officers were involved in the altercation, but the attorney general’s office said it does not plan to bring further charges. Millar’s employment ended Dec. 13, the Department of Corrections said Thursday. The others had returned to work after initially being placed on leave, but they are on leave again pending another internal review, the department said.

The housing of civilly committed psychiatric patients at the prison has long sparked protest. The state has faced multiple lawsuits, and lawmakers in recent years have allocated money to build a stand-alone forensic psychiatric hospital on the grounds of the state hospital to move such patients out of the prison.

Judge who sent more than 500 texts during a trial resigns

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma judge who sent more than 500 texts to her bailiff during a murder trial will resign, according to a court filing.

In a proposed settlement agreement filed Thursday with the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary, District Judge Traci Soderstrom agreed to resign on Friday and never again seek a judicial office in Oklahoma.

If accepted, the settlement would stop a trial scheduled to start Monday on a request to remove Soderstrom from the bench for reasons that include gross neglect of duty, oppression in office, lack of proper temperament and failure to supervise her office.

Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice John Kane IV recommended Soderstrom be removed following an investigation that found she mocked prosecutors, laughed at the bailiff’s comment about a prosecutor’s genitals, praised the defense attorney and called the prosecutor’s key witness a liar during the murder trial of Khristian Tyler Martzall.

Soderstrom, who was elected in November 2022 and took office on Jan. 9, 2023, voluntarily suspended herself in October.

Soderstrom’s resignation letter, given to local media, said she hoped to restore faith in the judicial system.

“I promised to uphold the Constitution in a fair, even-handed and efficient manner,” Soderstrom said. “I believe that I have done so. However, being human, I have also faltered.”

The judge’s texts during Martzall’s trial on a charge of killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son included saying the prosecutor was “sweating through his coat,” according to Kane’s petition. The texts described the defense attorney as “awesome” and asked “can I clap for her?” during the defense attorney’s opening arguments.

Soderstrom also texted a laughing emoji icon to the bailiff, who had “made a crass and demeaning reference to the prosecuting attorneys’ genitals,” Kane wrote.

Martzall was eventually convicted of second-degree man­slaughter and sentenced to time served.

Security video published by The Oklahoman showed Soderstrom texting or messaging for minutes at a time during jury selection, opening statements and testimony during the trial in Chandler, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) northeast of Oklahoma City.

State high court dismisses casino mogul’s defamation suit

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Nevada Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed a defamation lawsuit brought by casino mogul Steve Wynn against The Associated Press over a story about two women’s accounts to police alleging he engaged in sexual misconduct.

The court cited state anti-SLAPP law in rejecting Wynn’s claim that he was defamed in the February 2018 AP article, which cited police documents. SLAPP, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, refers to court filings made to intimidate or silence critics.

“Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statutes were designed to limit precisely the type of claim at issue here, which involves a news organization publishing an article in a good faith effort to inform their readers regarding an issue of clear public interest,” the three-justice panel said in a unanimous opinion.

Wynn had argued that the documents failed to fully describe elements of a woman’s account that would have cast doubt on her allegation that he raped her in the 1970s in Chicago and that she gave birth to their daughter in a gas station restroom.

Lauren Easton, AP vice president of corporate communications said in a statement that the news organization is pleased with the ruling.

“We believe the Nevada Supreme Court made the right decision,” Easton said.

Attorney Todd Bice, representing Wynn, said he was “surprised that the Court would change Nevada law and disregard the Nevada Legislature in order to extend legal protections to a news report that was determined to be false.”

He said Wynn’s legal team now is “considering all options.”

Wynn, the 82-year-old developer of a decadeslong casino empire, filed the lawsuit in April 2018 against AP, one of its reporters and Halina Kuta, the woman who made the claim. Two months earlier he had resigned as chairman and chief executive of Wynn Resorts.

Wynn has consistently denied sexual misconduct allegations, which were first reported in January 2018 by the Wall Street Journal.

The case went to the state high court twice, after Clark County District Court Judge Ronald Israel first dismissed AP from the case in August 2018 on the grounds that it “fairly reported” information based on an official document, a police complaint by Kuta, even though authorities never investigated the allegation.

Las Vegas police said too much time had elapsed since Kuta said the events occurred in 1973 or 1974.

Neither accuser was identified in the AP report. Their names and other identifying information were blacked out in documents obtained by AP under a public records request. Las Vegas police refused to provide additional details.

The AP typically does not publish names of people who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Kuta agreed to be named in later news reports.

The trial court judge later ruled that Kuta defamed Wynn with her claims, which the judge termed “totally fanciful,” and awarded Wynn a nominal amount of $1 in damages.

Wynn appealed Israel’s ruling to the state Supreme Court, where Bice argued in July 2020 that AP omitted relevant elements of Kuta’s complaint that would lead people to doubt the veracity of her allegation.

The high court reinstated the lawsuit in November 2020, saying Israel erred in dismissing AP from the case on fair report privilege grounds and instructing him to consider AP’s other arguments for dismissing the case under the Nevada anti-SLAPP statute.

Israel then granted AP’s motion to dismiss, and Wynn appealed again. The Supreme Court accepted written briefings but did not hear oral arguments again before issuing Thursday’s ruling.

New York
Woman sentenced to probation and fines in COVID aid fraud schemes

NEW YORK (AP) — A Brooklyn woman who pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with various pandemic-era relief schemes was sentenced Thursday to three years of probation and $650,000 in penalties.

Prosecutors said Chanette Lewis, 32, carried out some of the schemes by leveraging her job at a call center, part of a New York program meant to provide health care workers with isolation rooms in hotels. They said she provided free hotel rooms to people she knew weren’t eligible health care workers or COVID-19 patients, including herself.

“During the pandemic, this defendant exploited a COVID-19 safe-lodging program for her personal profit; today she faces the consequences of her criminal conduct. I thank New York City Emergency Management for reporting this matter,” New York Department of Investigation Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber said in a statement.

It’s the latest example of how people are believed to have stolen an estimated $280 billion in government aid during the pandemic across the U.S., including New York. The sentencing Thursday was part of a larger case involving $400,000 of fraud in the hotel program.

Lewis admitted to defrauding the emergency programs, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said in a statement, and she separately forged legal documents purporting to come from judges, prosecutors and doctors to get 30 people into public housing or into larger public housing apartments.

Using stolen personal information from real health care workers, she and three co-defendants were accused of securing the hotel rooms and then advertising them on Facebook to rent out, according to the Department of Investigation Statement. Co-defendants in the case have admitted to getting unemployment benefits in multiple states, along with fraudulent small business loans.

The Associated Press left phone and email messages with a lawyer involved in a plea deal in the case. It wasn’t immediately clear if that was Lewis’ current attorney; requests to prosecutors and investigators for updated contact info were not immediately answered.

Lewis was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to forfeit $290,000 and pay another $360,000 in penalties. Her co-defendants received lesser sentences, or have yet to be sentenced.