Judge displayed photos of male lawyers in hot pink chairs, exchanged 500-plus texts during murder trial, petition says
Judge Traci Soderstrom of Lincoln County, Oklahoma, should be removed for her conduct during a June murder trial, according to an Oct. 10 petition. Image from Shutterstock.
Updated: A judge should be removed from office for exchanging more than 500 texts with a bailiff during a murder trial in which she mocked participant appearances and “displayed gross partiality,” according to a disciplinary petition filed by Oklahoma’s chief justice.
Judge Traci Soderstrom of Lincoln County, Oklahoma, should be removed for her conduct during the June murder trial of Khristian Tyler Martzall, according to the Oct. 10 petition. Soderstrom became a judge in January and agreed to a temporary suspension Tuesday.
According to the ethics petition, Soderstrom and the bailiff mocked the physical appearance of attorneys, jurors and witnesses; used offensive language to deride prosecutors; disparaged the local defense bar; and expressed bias in favor of the defendant.
The petition also alleges a separate incident in which Soderstrom asked male lawyers to pose for photos in the hot pink chairs in her chambers. The photos were then displayed in her outer chambers; none pictured a woman.
The petition also said Soderstrom made inappropriate comments on Facebook, screamed at a court services coordinator .and made misleading statements to the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints.
Martzall was accused of murder in the fatal beating of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son. Prosecutors said he either participated in the boy’s abuse or failed to prevent it from happening.
Martzell was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to time served after spending more than five years in jail. The child’s mother had been sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to enabling child abuse.
According to allegations in the ethics petition:
• In text messages, Soderstrom and the bailiff discussed which jury instructions would best fit their desired outcome. Soderstrom granted a request for an instruction on second-degree manslaughter, which has a sentence of two to four years in prison.
• Soderstrom refused to rule on an objection to prosecution plans to call a doctor as an expert witness before jurors were sworn in and then barred the expert after a later hearing. The district attorney had sought a ruling before the swearing in to preserve the state’s right to appeal the issue.
• When a police officer took the stand, Soderstrom texted, “He’s pretty. I could look at him all day.” She and the bailiff also discussed whether a juror was wearing a wig, whether a witness had teeth, and whether a witness was “blinking uncontrollably.”
• Soderstrom commented in a text that the district attorney was “sweating thru his coat” during voir dire. The bailiff replied that the district attorney is “gross and a horrible speaker.” Soderstrom also texted that a prosecutor “looks constipated” and, “Is that the oh s- - - look?”
• Soderstrom commented in a text that jurors were going to hate the assistant district attorney, leading the bailiff to respond that he is “an arrogant ass- - - -.” The bailiff then “made a crass and demeaning reference to the prosecuting attorney’s genitals,” to which Soderstrom replied with a “ha ha” icon, the petition said.
• Soderstrom referred to the district attorney’s “baby hands” in a text and said they were “weird looking.” The bailiff replied, “I was told they were tiny lol.”
• Referencing the district attorney’s office, Soderstrom said in a text, “They are not used to going up against competent attorneys.” According to the petition, the comment was “implicitly dismissing the capabilities of the state’s attorneys and the defense bar.”
• Soderstrom texted, “State just couldn’t accept that a mom could kill their kid so they went after the next person available.”
• Soderstrom texted, “Can I please scream liar liar?” during the mother’s testimony.
• Soderstrom called the defense lawyer “awesome” in a text when the lawyer addressed jurors during voir dire.
The pattern of conduct displays Soderstrom’s “gross neglect of duty, gross partiality and oppression,” wrote Oklahoma Chief Justice M. John Kane IV in the petition. “The conduct further demonstrates [Soderstrom’s] lack of temperament to serve as a judge.”
The Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary will hear the ethics case.
“Judge Soderstrom takes these allegations very seriously,” her lawyer, Tracy Schumacher, told USA Today. “We are in the process of requesting the entire record from the Council on Judicial Complaints, so that she can respond appropriately.”
Updated Oct. 12 at 1:35 p.m. to state in the headline that Judge Traci Soderstrom displayed photographs of the lawyers.