Judge resigns after allegedly texting through toddler-death trial
As the murder trial for a man accused of beating a toddler to death began in June, the thoughts of the Oklahoma judge overseeing the case allegedly drifted to the appearance of the prosecutor: “Why does he have baby hands? … They are so weird looking,” she texted the bailiff, according to a court petition filed against her.
He is “sweating thru his coat,” then-District Judge Traci Soderstrom allegedly wrote about the prosecutor while he addressed the jury. “They (jurors) are going to hate him.”
When the defense attorney spoke, the judge took a different tone, according to the petition: “She’s awesome,” Soderstrom wrote. “Can I clap for her?”
Soderstrom, who was accused of exchanging about 500 texts with her bailiff, including messages that mocked the prosecutor’s genitals, objectified witnesses and called evidence “boring,” resigned Friday.
Under her agreement to step down as a district judge in Lincoln County, Soderstrom also agreed to not seek another judicial position in Oklahoma and waived her right to appeal, according to a settlement with the state, a copy of which was seen by The Washington Post.
After submitting her resignation, the former judge said she was regretful, ABC affiliate KOCO News reported. When asked if she was acknowledging wrongdoing by resigning, Soderstrom accepted responsibility for some of the allegations, but said that she had remained impartial.
“I texted during a trial,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether it was a traffic case, or whether it was a divorce case, or whether it was a first-degree murder case. I texted during a trial, and that was inappropriate.”
The former judge had been accused of gross neglect of duty, gross partiality and oppression in office, lack of proper temperament and failure to supervise her office, according to a petition by John Kane, the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Soderstrom, who was accused of texting through jury selection, opening statements and testimony of the murder trial, said she decided to resign instead of facing a public trial in a special court that had been scheduled to start Monday.
Kane wrote in the petition that Soderstrom had called murder trial witnesses liars, disparaged others and displayed bias. Kane had recommended that Soderstrom be removed from the bench after an investigation into her text messages during Khristian Martzall’s murder trial.
Martzall, who had been charged with first-degree murder of Braxton Danker, his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son, was ultimately found guilty on a lesser charge of second degree manslaughter, and given a sentence of four years, with credit for time served, resulting in no additional jail time. Judith Danker, the child’s mother and a witness in Martzall’s trial, pleaded guilty in 2019 to enabling child abuse and was sentenced to 25 years.
In the petition, Kane said Soderstrom’s texts proved she held an opinion about the defendant’s innocence.
“State just couldn’t accept that a mom could kill their kid so they went after the next person available,” Soderstrom texted during the trial, according to Kane’s court petition.
Later, she allegedly said: “Dna excluded Marzall on the bed, no way they get guilty on murder.”
When the co-defendant was testifying, the judge questioned her truthfulness. “Can I please scream liar liar,” she allegedly texted during the testimony.
After her resignation, Soderstrom told local news that she hadn’t made up her mind about the defendant’s innocence during the trial.
“Even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered, because I was not the fact finder,” she said. “The jury was the fact finder.”
Soderstrom’s alleged texts, which include emojis, commented on the appearances of others in the courtroom, as well. She wondered if one juror was wearing a wig, questioned if a witness had teeth and called a testifying police officer, “pretty,” adding, “I could look at him all day,” according to the petition.
The judge’s constant texting was brought to public attention in July when The Oklahoman reported that she could be seen sending text messages and scrolling Facebook on her cellphone during the trial. The newspaper published about 50 minutes of courtroom security footage.
Soderstrom served as an attorney-advocate for almost 20 years before running for the position of a district judge, she said in a statement provided by her attorney after she declined an interview request. She was elected into the 23rd Judicial District of Oklahoma in January 2023 and was set to serve there until January 2027.
“When I took the judicial oath on January 9th, 2023, I promised to uphold the Constitution in a fair, even-handed and efficient manner,” Soderstrom said in her statement. “In spite of resistance at nearly every turn, I believe that I have done so. However, being human, I have also faltered.”