BELLEVILLE, Ill. – A judge on Wednesday granted a new trial for a man convicted of murder in a trial presided over by another Illinois judge who's now facing drug charges.
Gregory Muse is the second convicted killer to have his conviction thrown out after defense attorneys questioned whether Judge Michael Cook was impaired by drug use that federal investigators say included heroin. It's the latest fallout in a scandal that also included an ex-prosecutor's cocaine death.
Circuit Judge Robert Haida, the southwestern Illinois county's former longtime top prosecutor, suggested he had little choice but to order Muse retried "in the interest of justice."
"I can't speculate on what Judge Cook did or why he did it," Haida said. But "as I sit now reviewing this matter, I can't say with the certainty that I need to say that Gregory Muse received a fair trial."
Public defender Erin Conner submitted that Cook appeared to slur his words while reading the jury instructions before his first-degree murder conviction in March and that prosecutors at the trial failed to disclose to Muse that Cook was being investigated. Had they done so, Conner argued, Muse could have asked for a new judge.
Deborah Phillips, an assistant prosecutor under State's Attorney Brendan Kelly, countered that Muse was convicted due to "overwhelming" evidence and that Muse has never cited any specific examples of how Cook allegedly botched the proceedings or showed bias. Any impaired speech by Cook, Phillips suggested, may have been the result of the judge having to read 29 pages of jury instructions, which jurors also got written copies of during deliberations.
"That's the bottom line," Phillips told Haida. "There is simply not enough to call into question, to use the defense's terms, to overturn the verdict."
Arguments similar to Muse's already were pressed by William Cosby, whom Haida on Oct. 2 also granted a new trial after challenging the fairness of his trial, which Cook presided over in April. Cosby was convicted in last year's shooting death of a man outside an East St. Louis lounge.
That conviction, a month after Muse's, came roughly three weeks before federal prosecutors charged Cook with possessing heroin and having a gun while illegally using controlled substances.
Cook has resigned, pleaded not guilty, attended drug rehab in Minnesota and awaits a trial scheduled for Dec. 9, though his attorneys have said recently in court that Cook may plead guilty before then.
One of Cook's attorneys, Thomas Keefe III, has declined to publicly discuss his client's alleged drug use or the ensuing fallout involving Muse and Cosby.
Authorities have said Cook was with Joe Christ, a former longtime St. Clair County prosecutor and newly appointed associate judge, in March when Christ died of a cocaine overdose at the Cook family's western Illinois hunting cabin. Cook has not been charged in the death of Christ, a 49-year-old father of six.
Just two days after Christ's death, Cook was back on the bench for Muse's trial in the 2011 shooting death of an alleged accomplice during an East St. Louis pawn shop robbery.
Kelly, the state's attorney, said earlier this month that additional defendants unsatisfied by the outcomes of cases presided over by Cook may come forward to ask for new trials. "We may not know every challenge we'll face for some time. It could be many. It could be only these few," Kelly said.
Cook became an associate circuit judge in 2007 and became a circuit judge in 2010.