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Paranoia or conspiracies?

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

rclawrence@bellsouth.net

Former General Sessions Court judge Thomas Austin made thousands of rulings for nearly three decades before a federal grand jury indicted him for extortion and money laundering in 2006.

Whether or not any of those rulings were tainted remains a mystery. Authorities apparently haven’t investigated his prior court decisions to find out.

“How could you possibly go and look through all the thousands of cases on a case-by-case basis and try to figure that out?” District Attorney General Russell Johnson asked.

Accused murderers Rocky and Leon Houston appeared before Austin when he was on the bench. The Houstons’ father Clyde Houston believes that’s one of the reasons his sons are facing doublemurder charges.

Leon’s trial is scheduled to start today, July 14, in Roane County Criminal Court.

“Judge Austin is involved in all of this,” Clyde Houston said.

Maybe it’s because he’s an easy target, or maybe it’s because there’s some validity to the claims.

Whatever the reason, Austin has given conspiracy theorists reason to distrust the system.

Austin was originally indicted on seven counts of extortion and one count of money laundering. He eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of extortion and was sentenced to 42 months in a federal prison.

“He was a very powerful man,” said former FBI agent Bob Gibson. “He was re-elected time and time again, and like most judges, a respected figure in the county.”

Some felt Austin made a mockery out of the Roane County court system. Gibson said Austin can be heard on recorded conversations talking about how being a judge aided him with some of his sexual conquests.

“I’ve had people who said, ‘Well I know he decided my case based on him going to have a date with my wife afterwards,” said Kingston attorney Chris Cawood, who detailed his relationship with Austin in a book, “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”

Johnson didn’t take office until after Austin had already been indicted. He said absent any credible evidence, there’s no reason to look into Austin’s old cases.

“No one had given us any credible information to make us believe there was anything wrong,” Johnson said. “That’s not to say that there might not have been. We just don’t know about it.”

Even if there was some solid evidence, proving that Austin’s rulings were based on some sort of illegal activity could still be hard to do.

“You would have to go back to individual cases and prove something that he did in that individual case that was just not a bad decision, but predicated on some bribe or something like that,” Cawood said. “Usually the other side is not going to admit that they did anything, so that’s hard to go back and do.”

Gibson said Austin’s power was limited because he was a judge in General Sessions Court. A lot of the issues taken up in sessions court deal with divorces, misdemeanors and traffic violations.

“It could have been worse,” Gibson said. “He could have been some other type of judge.”