Prosecutor asks Ohio Supreme Court not to allow Butler Co. judge to preside over homicide retrial

County prosecutor says judge mishandled jury, lax in courtroom decorum and made crude jokes

HAMILTON — On Nov. 1, Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser accused a Butler County Common Pleas judge of bias for the handling of a death penalty trial that ended in a hung jury. When Judge Greg Howard declined recusal, Gmoser vowed to take his request to the Ohio Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, he made good on his statement.

Last month, after a three-week trial with nearly two weeks of testimony and 14 hours of deliberation, Howard declared a mistrial in the trial of Gurpreet Singh, who is accused of 2019 killing of four family members, when the jury indicated it was hung and did not believe any further deliberations would serve a useful purpose.

In addition to previously cited issues over replacing jurors and a transcript requested from the deliberating jury, Gmoser alleges in a newly filed affidavit that Howard’s “qualifying bias is manifest in his making demeaning sexual jokes in chambers and failing to conduct the trial with proper courtroom decorum in a capital case.”

Gmoser also alleges Howard failed to preserve the record for appeal of possible juror misconduct and demeaned the seriousness of the case by not maintaining proper courtroom decorum.

Singh was permitted to “snack” in the courtroom like he was picnicking during the trial, Gmoser said.

At the Nov. 1 hearing, Gmoser said Howard should have removed feuding jurors that resulted in a hung jury.

Howard declined to replace jurors with alternates knowing two jurors were at odds and not deliberating, the prosecutor said. Gmoser also found fault with Howard’s decision not to give the jury a requested transcript of a DNA expert, but instructed them to rely on their “collective memories” of that testimony.

At the hearing Howard did not recuse himself, saying he does not feel he had or has bias.

“I’m not here to make people happy, I am here to follow the law,” Howard said. “I will not be recusing myself from this case.”

The county prosecutor also showed the judge and defense counsel a photo of a sign he says is like one that is on a bookshelf in Howard’s chambers that some find offensive, and “should never see the light of day,” he said. The sign says “(Expletive) in charge of you (expletive) (expletive).”

Howard apologized if he had ever offended anyone.

In the lengthy affidavit, Gmoser cites more issues.

On Oct. 6, there was no recording of possible juror misconduct at an unrecorded chambers conference in which “the judge stated that the bailiff had admonished one juror he observed at a nearby restaurant at lunch time looking for a newspaper to read. Additionally, the bailiff reported that this same juror was trying to “discuss” the case with other jurors in violation of instructions,” Gmoser said in the filing.

After “minimal” discussion, Howard said he would re-instruct jurors on the issues.

“No record was made of this possible juror misconduct. Instead, the judge without explanation, reminded the jury of the instruction on these issues,” Gmoser said in the filing. He added other “critical” matters were not put on the record, including verbal communication from a juror to the bailiff about “bullying” and Howard’s “angry words” to prosecutors when he was questioned about his denial of the transcript request from the jury.

Gmoser said in the affidavit that Howard made crude jokes in chambers in “mixed” company that were sexual in nature about body piercing and a former attorney’s serial incidents of public indecency.

“The judge’s crude humor in chambers is exactly the type of ‘unprofessional, undignified and disrespectful’ comments that warrant disqualifications because ‘such language degrades the decorum of the court and diminishes public confidence in the judiciary’,” Gmoser wrote.

According to Gmoser, Howard also demeaned the case by not maintaining proper courtroom decorum.

“(Singh), a capital defendant, was permitted to snack in the courtroom while completely unrestrained (and within inches of prosecutors) and casually walk between counsel tables during breaks as if he were at a picnic,” Gmoser said in the filing.

Gmoser claimed that the press twice broadcast a video or photos of the jury members and the courtroom door to a hallway leading to the jury room was frequently left open.

“One juror walked into the courtroom to speak with the bailiff during a discussion of jury instructions,” Gmoser said.

The county prosecutor said “the state should not be forced to risk another unwarranted mistrial by allowing the biased judge to preside over the retrial. Prosecutors should not be faced with the choice to tolerate the judge’s crude remarks, unrecorded conferences and arbitrary rulings, or challenge the judge and risk reprisals in a capital case.”

Howard did not respond for a request for comment, but will likely file a response with the supreme court.

The 40-year-old former truck driver is charged with four counts of aggravated murder for allegedly shooting and killing his wife Shalinderjit Kaur, 39; his in-laws, Hakikat Singh Pannag, 59, and Parmjit Kaur, 62; and his aunt-in-law, Amarjit Kaur, 58, at a West Chester Twp. apartment on April 28, 2019. He faces the death penalty if found guilty.

Attorneys David Washington and Jeremy Evans, Singh’s new defense team, were back in court Wednesday for a pre-trial and will return in January where a new trial date may be set.

ExploreHung jury: After three weeks of trial, no verdict in West Chester quadruple homicide case

Prosecutors said Singh murdered his family by shooting them all in the head after a longtime affair he was having and a strained relationship with his in-laws over money from land owned in India.

The defense said Singh is innocent and the killings were part of a professional hit due to Pannag’s financial woes and a dubious land contract deal in India with the “land mafia.” They say three masked men broke into the apartment with baseball bats and Singh ran for his life. When he returned, everyone was dead.

Read more about the mistrial and Singh’s case at journal-news.com.

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