A court has ruled that a judge's audiotape of personal "graphic fantasies" — a recording that shocked investigators — is his private property and should not be made public.
Circuit Judge John B. Hagler of Cleveland, Tenn., resigned last month after the local prosecutor, an investigator and the Chattanooga Times Free Press asked him about the tape he had recorded years earlier.
The newspaper, The Associated Press and other news organizations had asked that the tape be released, but Hamilton County Chancery Court Judge Frank Brown ruled Thursday that it is not a public record and should be returned to Hagler.
"Private documents do not become public just because someone provides them to a law enforcement official," the judge said in the ruling.
Hagler's attorney, Roger Jenne, said that while Hagler was "extremely grateful" for the ruling, investigators should "get back and investigate what is really behind" the leak of the tape's existence.
Chattanooga police investigated the tape in 2005, after a secretary who had just been fired by Hagler turned it over. She said she found the recording of the judge's voice on a tape that also contained legal dictation.
Few details of the tape's content have been made public, but police testified during a court hearing that it was disturbing and sounded like someone being tortured.
They said they initially thought the tape might be linked to the unsolved 1997 shooting death of an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Charles Martin "Marty" Davis, 35, in Chattanooga. But Brown said in the decision Thursday that there was no apparent link.
Brown disagreed with Chattanooga police who said the tape was needed in their records as exculpatory evidence in the Davis killing. He said it was no more related to the Davis case than "books written about Charles Manson."
About two years after the investigation ended, the tape made its way to the prosecutor in Hagler's district, District Attorney Steve Bebb. After the Times Free Press learned about the recording from an unidentified source in December, Hagler confirmed it and resigned.
Bebb said in December that the tape "would disturb any human being who heard it," and that he sent a copy to the state Court of the Judiciary, which handles complaints against judges. The court, however, has no jurisdiction because Hagler resigned, a court spokeswoman said.
Hagler, who had been a circuit judge in Cleveland since 1990, has said that he did nothing wrong but that the recording had caused great embarrassment to friends, relatives and the courts. He strongly suggested the leak was committed by someone with a grudge against him, perhaps someone he ruled against.
In a statement issued last month, he said describing the recording as "graphic fantasies" was "accurate and sufficient ... and all any decent person would want to hear of it."
Brown said the newspaper and Chattanooga officials who had previously agreed to release the recording would have 30 days to contest it. The Times Free Press has not decided whether to do so, said its publisher and executive editor, Tom Griscom.
Jenne said there is a question as to whether someone "leaked this information in retaliation for decisions he has made in the past."
"Find out who the culprit is," he said
Jenne said release of the tape by anyone other than the parties in the case would bring a "pretty significant lawsuit."