NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A special prosecutor said Thursday that the office of the now-outgoing Tennessee House speaker did not doctor a black activist’s email to frame him for a bond violation, marking the latest in a series of developments that began when a glass of iced tea was allegedly hurled at the speaker.
The prosecutor who made the announcement has himself come under scrutiny for anti-Islam and anti-gay remarks.
Coffee County District Attorney Craig Northcott said he spoke with the legislative IT department and determined the email from Justin Jones to Speaker Glen Casada had gotten stuck in a spam filter, making it appear it was sent after Jones was banned from contacting Casada.
A judge had imposed the ban as a condition of bail in February after Jones was arrested on misdemeanor assault and disorderly conduct charges for allegedly throwing the iced tea toward Casada during a protest.
Jones had argued that he actually wrote the email to Casada before his arrest and that someone changed the date to make it look like it was afterward.
Nashville’s district attorney handed off Jones’ case when Casada’s former chief of staff, Cade Cothren, forwarded the prosecutor’s office the email from Jones. The prosecutors’ conference then assigned Northcott to the case.
The doctored email allegation was the first of several that arose this spring before Cothren resigned and Casada announced he would leave his leadership post as well.
The case triggered a firestorm for Northcott as well.
After Northcott was appointed special prosecutor in Jones’ case, social media posts came to light in which he wrote Islam’s belief system is “evil, violent and against God’s truth” and that being Muslim is no different than “being part of the KKK, Aryan Nation, etc.”
Then video footage surfaced of him saying gay couples shouldn’t receive domestic violence protections, arguing that such laws are designed to protect the “sanctity of marriage.”
Jones’ attorney, Dominic Leonardo, said Northcott’s comments and his service on a prosecutors’ conference that lobbies lawmakers should disqualify him. Northcott said he stopped holding the prosecutors’ conference position in June.
Judge Dianne Turner also denied Leonardo’s request to replace Northcott as the case’s special prosecutor, saying she only can determine if lawyers are qualified based on whether they are licensed. She did say Leonardo could have some time to investigate how Northcott was picked by the prosecutors’ conference.
“The appearance of impropriety on our justice system, on the state of Tennessee, with the statements that he has made, this case is every bit about free speech, this case is every about race and equality and marginalized populations,” Leonardo said. “And with those sorts of views, it’s impossible for Mr. Jones to get a fair trial.”
Northcott called Leonardo’s arguments about the anti-Islam and anti-gay comments “constitutionally repugnant.” The comments have drawn an ongoing investigation by the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee.
“Everything you heard them argue just now was, they don’t like my theological and political beliefs,” Northcott said.
And all of that has taken place against the backdrop of multiple scandals involving Casada.
With Northcott’s investigation ongoing, the state’s top investigative agency says it has not opened an investigation into various other allegations against the speaker.
Casada announced he would resign Aug. 2 after it was revealed he exchanged text messages containing sexually explicit language about women with Cothren several years ago, among other controversies. House Republicans this week nominated Rep. Cameron Sexton to replace Casada.
There have been calls for investigation into other allegations, including claims by some lawmakers that Casada tried to buy their votes on an education voucher bill, which Casada has vehemently denied.
“The TBI has offered, and remains available, to assist the state’s special prosecutor with his investigation into this matter,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman Josh DeVine. “At this time, he has not requested our assistance. Because his process is ongoing and to prevent duplicate investigative efforts, we have not opened an investigation into this matter under original jurisdiction.”
DeVine said it’s premature to speculate whether TBI would begin investigating Casada once Northcott finishes the Jones case.
Jones has taken part in Capitol protests for years. He has led numerous demonstrations, including calls for the bust of former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, to be removed from the Capitol.