An Oklahoma judge who exchanged 500 text messages with her bailiff during a murder trial — mocking the physical appearance of lawyers, jurors and witnesses and deriding prosecutors — should be removed from the bench, the state’s top judge said.
In a court filing on Tuesday, M. John Kane IV, the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, recommended the removal of Traci Soderstrom, who was elected as district judge in Lincoln County in November and took the bench in January.
Judge Soderstrom, 50, was presiding over a murder trial that began on June 7 when she put her personal cellphone in her lap, out of the view of others in the courtroom, and texted continuously back and forth with the bailiff, according to Chief Justice Kane’s petition.
Judge Soderstrom and the bailiff “called murder trial witnesses liars, admired the looks of a police officer who was testifying, disparaged the local defense bar, expressed bias in favor of the defendant and displayed gross partiality against the state,” Chief Justice Kane wrote.
As they texted, an Oklahoma man, Khristian Martzall, was on trial, charged with first-degree murder in the fatal beating of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son. On June 15, a jury found Mr. Martzall guilty of a lesser charge, second-degree manslaughter, and sentenced him to time served.
Judith Danker, the child’s mother, pleaded guilty in 2019 to enabling child abuse and was sentenced to 25 years. She testified as a witness in Mr. Martzall’s trial.
Chief Justice Kane wrote that Judge Soderstrom’s text messages “give the appearance” that she believed that Mr. Martzall “was innocent and that she wanted a particular outcome in the case.”
While the district attorney was addressing jurors during jury selection, Judge Soderstrom wrote that he was “sweating thru his coat,” to which the bailiff responded: “Yes. It’s gross. He’s gross and a horrible speaker.”
The judge texted the bailiff that the jury was “going to hate” the district attorney, then responded to the bailiff’s “crass and demeaning reference” to the prosecutor’s genitals with a “ha ha” icon, the petition states. In another text to the bailiff about the district attorney, Judge Soderstrom wrote: “Why does he have baby hands? … They are so weird looking.”
When the defense lawyer addressed the jury, the judge had a more positive response, writing, “She’s awesome,” the petition states. During the defense’s opening arguments, the judge texted the bailiff, “Can I clap for her?”
The judge and the bailiff derided the co-defendant, calling her a liar at least three times, the petition states. When she was on the stand, the judge texted “comments like, ‘Can I please scream liar liar?’” Chief Justice Kane wrote.
Commenting on a juror’s hair, the judge texted: “That’s a wig. Look at that hair line,” and “definitely wearing a wig,” prompting the bailiff to respond, “OMG, LOL,” the petition states. The judge and bailiff wondered if another juror had teeth.
In one text, Judge Soderstrom appeared to share her opinion on the case, writing: “State just couldn’t accept that a mom could kill their kid so they went after the next person available,” the petition states. In another text, she wrote, “Dna excluded Marzall on the bed, no way they get guilty on murder.”
The judge’s cellphone use came to public attention in July, when The Oklahoman published more than 50 minutes of courtroom security footage and reported that it showed the judge texting and scrolling Facebook during Mr. Martzall’s trial.
In response to the “publicity,” Judge Soderstrom had the courtroom security camera moved so that she was out of view, Chief Justice Kane wrote.
When the camera was moved back to its original location, a “black box was inserted to block out the bottom half of the viewing area,” so that Judge Soderstrom would once again be obscured from view, Chief Justice Kane wrote.
Chief Justice Kane’s petition said that Judge Soderstrom should be removed for gross neglect of duty, gross partiality in office and other grounds; and that her conduct “brought disrepute upon her office and diminished public confidence in the judiciary.”
Court records indicate that Judge Soderstrom has 20 days to respond to the petition. Judge Soderstrom did not immediately respond on Thursday to messages left at numbers listed under her name.
The Oklahoman reported that she agreed on Tuesday to a temporary suspension.
A hearing on the petition to remove Judge Soderstrom has been set for Nov. 15 and Nov. 16 in Oklahoma Supreme Court. A trial date has been set for Jan. 3, 2024.
Judge Soderstrom’s lawyer, Tracy Schumacher, who did not immediately respond to messages on Thursday, told The Oklahoman: “Judge Soderstrom takes these allegations very seriously. We are in the process of requesting the entire record from the Council on Judicial Complaints so that she can respond appropriately.”
The district attorney in Mr. Martzall’s trial, Adam Panter, and Mr. Martzall’s lawyers, Velia Lopez and Gregg Graves, did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.