J. Steven Cox said almost all statements made were false
By John Estridge, Editor
It may have been the first time it was done in Indiana.
Franklin Circuit Court Judge J. Steven Cox opened up his courtroom Thursday night, Sept. 6, and talked for one hour and 25 minutes, answering questions from the audience after his presentation.
He told the 85 people present in the reconfigured seating arrangement he was defending the court, the people's court, from statements made by his opponent, Democrat Tammy Davis.
Cox opened saying the court is where people come, when there is a dispute,to find the truth.
"It is altogether fitting that we are here today talking about the actual record of this court, what has happened in this room and this court as its administrator and in my capacity how I've handled those matters as we have worked in your court," Cox said. "The format is going to be basically statements that were made against the court, or against me as the administrator, that are factually inaccurate.
"The reason we're here tonight, and the reason the commission on qualifications has indicated to me that it's OK for me to be here talking to you about setting the record straight in the courtroom finally and once and for all, is because to this date when I am talking to you Tammy R. Davis has never unrung the bell," Cox said later in the meeting. "She has never retracted even the first statement that she made back on July 11."
Rows of chairs were placed in the area in front of the judge's bench. Others present filled the regular seating area and the jury area. Tables which are normally used by the prosecution and defense teams were pushed to the side. Two overheads were utilized with one showing excerpts from articles about Davis and her newspaper advertisements, and the other one showed pertinent documents from the David Ison case files.
Franklin County Probation Officer Brian Campbell, volunteering his time, operated the overheads.
Cox stood in front of the bench, addressing the crowd, while he had a timeline on a poster board regarding pertinent dates regarding Ison. The poster board was on an easel.
Davis made claims in an article written in the Brookville Democrat/American, in an ad and on her campaign website that Ison committed several crimes, culminating in the shooting deaths of five people on Stipps Hill Road, while he should have been in prison.
Cox released Ison from prison on July 15, 2010. When his term would have ended, had he not been released early, has been in dispute.
Before Cox got into the Ison cases, which were physically spread out on one of the tables off to the side, he addressed the latest Davis advertisement. It stated Cox was breaking one of the canons which govern judges by having Thursday night's presentation.
"Based upon information released so far, it seems to be in violation of Judicial Canon 4 Rule 4.1(10), and if it does take place in the courthouse, it is an abuse of power and taxpayers' money," Cox read from her ad.
"Judicial qualifications commission was consulted every step of the way before I ever announced an invitation to any of you to come to your courtroom and hear the truth about these files," Cox said. "They are fully aware of it. And now Tammy R. Davis is too because they contacted her today and told her that statement she printed yesterday was inaccurate … The only reason we are here is because she, not I, have raised questions about this court and how it operates."
According to Cox, due to educational credits, Ison applied for and was awarded on June 11, 2010, his release date, had he not been released early, would have been Sept. 21, 2010, a difference of 68 days.
Cox said none of the crimes Davis has alleged Ison committed in her ads were committed during those 68 days. And the murders took place on Sept. 27, 2011, more than a year after he would have been released from prison.
Ison was released from prison by Cox during a dissolution hearing before Cox. Ison's then-wife, Tressa, had filed for divorce. Ison was transported to Franklin County for the divorce hearing. During the divorce hearing, Ison and Tressa reconciled their differences, Cox said.
"We have a hearing where he and his wife talk about all the issues in the divorce, in the marriage, and they reconcile," Cox said. "They no longer want to be divorced. This is all on tape and on record. They have a child together. David is incarcerated. The mother is struggling with addiction. And the court, after the hearing is over, goes down and talks to prosecutor Mel Wilhelm about his position about releasing Ison early for the purpose of exploring reunification."
Cox said Wilhelm told him Ison had already done his time for the Counterfeiting charge he was sent to prison for in 2008. Ison was then serving time for a probation violation. Ison was still on probation for a burglary conviction in 1990.
"He (Wilhelm) says to me 'it's a probation term,'" Cox said. "'He's done all the time that we asked for. You don't need us. Why are you asking us? That's better left for you.'"
So, Cox released Ison that day to probation.
In the debate carried out in articles and ads between Cox and Davis over how long Ison would have remained in prison had Cox not released Ison on July 15, 2010, Randall Short, an employee with the Indiana Department of Corrections, has been named by both Cox and Davis.
When Cox talked to Short, it was found Short was not in possession of the June 11, 2010 order Cox signed giving Ison some time off his sentence due to educational credits Ison had earned.
"I said if you (Short) had the June 11 order what would you do with it?" Cox said. "'Well, we would have to credit it,'" Cox said Short answered him. "It is true the Department of Corrections did not have the June 11 order because we let him (Ison) out July 15. It was moot."
Cox said it is reasonable to debate whether the reason he let Ison out early is valid. However, Davis should have done due diligence in researching when Ison would have been released before she started making accusations, he said.
"If you want to debate the wisdom of my thinking in the terms of why he should have been out early, fair," Cox said. "But you can't debate that had I done nothing, he would have been out Sept. 21. That's the record. It's always been the record, and it's been there since June 11, 2010."
Cox used Davis' statements and ads to show Ison would have been out if he in fact did the crimes she alleged.
"On Feb. 22 (2011) Tammy Davis said (Ison) robbed a bank at gunpoint in Butler County, Ohio," Cox said. "May the 9, Ison is alleged to have robbed a convenience store in Ripley County. On Sept. 25, he killed five people on Stipps Hill Road.
"But the important point of that, which eludes Tammy Davis, is that all of those allegations, and the only crime he was actually convicted of, is in an area where he would never, by anyone's account have been in prison," Cox said. "To say David Ison robbed a bank at gunpoint in Oxford, Ohio needs this part said to. David Ison was never charged with robbing a bank in Oxford, Ohio, ever."
Cox then went through each Davis statement in articles and ads beginning with the accusation Ison would have been in prison when the murders were committed.
"That statement is inaccurate," Cox said.
Davis said Cox released Ison early because they were boyhood friends. She also stated Cox should have recused himself from any cases involving Ison.
"David Ison and I started first grade together," Cox said. "We went through sixth grade together at Metamora Elementary School. We went to seventh and eighth at Laurel Junior High. I don't have any independent recollection of him at junior high, but I am sure he was there sometime in the building and I can assure you I was. But after the age of 12, I had no contact with David Ison at any meaningful level whatsoever.
"So, if my hanging out with a kid until I was 12, and I hadn't seen him since for over 30-some years, mostly because he was in prison, has to be answered by you in terms of whether it was reasonable for me to continue hearing the cases that he was involved in and bringing him back to court," Cox continued. "Each of the files that are on the table except for the first one and the second to the last one, the counterfeiting case, are me. And not one time in any of those files did anyone raise an impartiality issue with me."
Cox said he knew the majority of people who were in the courtroom Thursday night, but he would not be disqualified from hearing cases involving most of the people who were there.
"That is just not the rule, the law we were under," Cox said. "There is nothing in the canon that supports her statement that Steve Cox should not have remained on the bench to hear any of Ison's civil or criminal cases. That is factually inaccurate."
Davis said Cox broke the law by modifying Ison's sentence and not contacting Wilhelm about the modification. Cox said Davis is using the wrong statute for the situation.
According to Cox, the Indiana Code Davis used, 35-38-1-17(b), for her argument is the wrong statute for the situation. The one that should be used is 35-38-2-1.8, because Ison was serving time for a probation violation and not for the crime of counterfeiting.
"Tammy Davis said I didn't follow the statute, and she is absolutely right because it's the wrong statute," Cox said.
She said Cox did not contact the prosecutor. While he was not obligated to do that due to the Indiana Code he was using, Cox did contact Wilhelm, he said. She also said Cox should have contacted the victims before modifying the sentence. That is not required due to it being a probation situation, Cox said.
Davis stated the paper trail has not been the greatest when determining credit time; however, the paper trail has been in all the files since 2010, Cox said.
Another Davis statement is that Cox is rarely in the office. According to Cox he has heard 7,662 hearings between 2008 and 2012.
"I don't know what rarely means in the term of things, but when you don't miss 7,662 hearings, I'd say I was present," Cox said.
Davis said Cox underestimates the drug problem in Franklin County.
According to Cox, the number of cases involving drugs has fallen in each of the last four years. In 2008, there were 393 cases. In 2009, 374; 2010, 354; and 2011, 314.
"A steady decline in the number of drugs (cases) being filed in this court," Cox said. "I don't underestimate the drug problem in Franklin County, but the statistics are what they are."
There has been a call for a drug court. Cox said of the 314 cases filed in 2011, only one would have qualified for a drug court. And the drug court would be operated out of Judge Clay Kellerman's Court not Cox's, he said. And that mistake shows a clear misunderstanding over the function of the court.
Davis said she would operate the probation department more tightly than it currently is.
Cox said the probation department drug tested Ison 18 times over the 12-month period he was on probation. He failed the drug test twice, and each time he had a valid prescription for the drug found in his system.
The probation department, which consists of two probation officers and one secretary, supervised 563 people in 2011 and through July 2012, it has supervised 255 people, Cox said.
"I don't know what running it a little more tightly means, but I am pretty proud the way our probation department works," Cox said. "And check around to see what probation offices are spending around us for the same services we are getting here in Franklin County for a much cheaper dime."
Davis said it is hard for police officers to get Cox's signature when it is required for warrants.
According to Cox, during his tenure from 1995-2012, he has signed 218 warrants in his home. Fifteen had to go out of county because they couldn't find Cox.
Cox said Davis refuses to retract her statements that he said she has made that are incorrect.
Also, Cox told the public Davis was Ison's court-appointed attorney in the counterfeiting case. One of Ison's charges was being an habitual offender. Davis, on behalf of her client, entered into a plea agreement with the prosecutor's office which dropped the habitual criminal charge. Had that charge remained, Ison would have been in prison until sometime in 2016, Cox said.
"There is nothing wrong with that," Cox said. "Plea agreements happen all the time … Plea recommendations are a vital part of how business gets done in the court. I point it out only because she has made such a big deal of David Ison and the inhumanity of David Ison. That's a terrible thing. You can't argue it. We, as a community, have lived it. But, when she negotiated that away, that was part of her advocacy for him. As his attorney, she should have been doing all she could do. But that doesn't mean you have to go later when something else bad happens, and act like you're the most appalled thing ever. She knew of his 20-some felonies when she was representing him … It is pretty rare you turn around as an attorney and openly talk about your former clients."
Cox said there is no way he could know the future when he made the decision to shorten Ison's sentence by 68 days.
"If you want to play the slippery, hypothetical game with the actual record of this court, you can do it," Cox said. "You can say I should have been smarter and somewhere on this board is a crystal ball that I could have utilized and known that David Ison was going to do what he did. Even though after months of supervision there was no indication of it. That is easy to do. It is easy fodder to throw out there."