A Tennessee Department of Correction employee is under internal investigation, accused of interfering with the judicial process in the Facebook murders case, according to court records.
A person claiming to be a corrections officer at the Tennessee Prison for Women sent a letter of support on behalf of Barbara and Jenelle Potter to the judge overseeing the women’s appeals for new trials, according to a December 23 letter obtained by News Channel 11.
“I’ve come to know Barbara and Jenelle Potter for the past year since they are inmates under my care,” the letter said. “They are charged with a horrible crime which I believe they could not commit nor conspire to commit…For me, Barbara and Jenelle Potter are honest people with good morals and character…In my humble opinion, neither Barbara nor Jenelle Potter could take that ill-fated step to further the act of taking the lives of two human beings.”
A jury found the two women, currently serving life sentences, guilty of first-degree murder in the 2012 shooting deaths of Bill Payne and Jean Hayworth in Johnson County. Prosecutors said the murders followed a Facebook feud.
Upon receiving the corrections officer’s letter, the judge shared it with prosecutors and defense attorneys before ultimately denying the Potters’ requests for new trials.
When Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, appointed in the case, found out about the woman’s letter, he wrote a letter of his own to TDOC in which he called for an immediate investigation.
“I find it to be irresponsible and reprehensible that an employee of the Department of Corrections would take this action and display such poor judgment,” he wrote.
Staubus said while he never thought the judge would be influenced by the letter, he knew that was the woman’s intention.
“When a judge makes the decision, he makes that decision on his experience, based on the evidence and the law and it’s pretty clear that individuals that are not part of the proceedings, that are not part of the evidence, to write letters to tell the judge or suggest the judge should act one way or another, it’s just bad judgment,” Staubus said. “It’s something that just should not be done.”
A TDOC spokesperson confirmed the matter is the subject of an internal investigation.
“The incident in question is still under investigation by the Department’s Office of Investigation and Compliance,” Robert Reburn said. “If any violation has taken place, disciplinary action would be issued at the conclusion of the investigation.”
Judge Don Ash responded to the woman’s letter, urging her to not send him any additional correspondence, because he is “not allowed to respond to such letters.”
“Judges are not allowed to have one-sided communication with people involved in any active case,” Judge Ash wrote. “As a judge, I must remain completely neutral.”
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