WEST CHESTER — The attorney for a man whose long-running dispute with a neighbor ended with him fatally shooting the man outside their West Goshen homes wants the Common Pleas Court judge set to oversee his trial to step aside from the case, citing her possible elevation to the federal bench.
Clayton P. Carter III’s defense attorney, Joseph P. Green Jr. of West Chester, last week filed a motion asking Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft to formally recuse herself from presiding over the trial, currently scheduled to get underway in December. The case had been assigned to Wheatcraft only last month, after Judge Anthony Sarcione — who had overseen the case since it was filed in court last year — said he would not be able to hear it before he retires at the end of the year.
In the motion, which Wheatcraft heard in court on Wednesday, Green said that the case against Carter was likely to include suggestions that Carter had shot his neighbor, G. Brooks Jennings, for political reasons. Jennings was a Republican committeeman in the township, and Carter, at the time of the shooting, had several anti-Trump signs in his front yard, months after the presidential election.
Green said the political nature of the case had been “widely covered” in the local and national media, citing one post on the internet titled, “Democrat Clayton Carter Murders Chesco GOP Committeeman Brooks Jennings.” He stated that the prosecution intended to bring up the political differences of the two men as the cause of the conflict between the two.
“The ‘political’ nature of the coverage of and commentary regarding this prosecution is likely to escalate as the trial approaches in this fall’s election season,” Green wrote, citing the upcoming mid-term November elections pitting Democrats against Republicans in vote-rich Chester County.
How does that bear on Wheatcraft’s ability to preside over the trial? Green said it stems from what outsiders may view as her own political connections.
“It has been widely rumored within the Chester County legal community that (Wheatcraft), originally elected with the support of the Chester County Republican Committee, is being considered for an appointment to a federal judgeship by the current Republican administration,” Green wrote in his motion. “(Wheatcraft) should not be put in the position in this case of making evidentiary and other rulings that will be spun, and may be perceived, as favoring either Democrats or Republicans.”
In court, Green told Wheatcraft, “It’s not fair to you to be criticized over political considerations.” Although he expressed confidence that the judge “could and would be fair in this case,” Green nevertheless said she should recuse herself because others could perceive a conflict.
He did not offer any specific evidence concerning Wheatcraft’s possible federal judicial aspirations, only the reference to rumors in the community.
Under the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct provides that judges should recuse themselves from any matter in which they either have a conflict that would affect their ability to be impartial, but also those matters in which there is an appearance…