Prosecutors' agreement to drop 13 charges against Brooks E. Blitch III - and to seek probation instead of a prison sentence - stunned U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson, who took a 20 minute break to decide if he would accept the deal.
"This is the same Brooks Blitch whose hide the government has been trying to nail to the barn door for four years," Lawson said in court. "The government has done everything it can to send this man to jail."
Blitch, 74, presided for nearly 28 years in south Georgia's Alapaha Judicial Circuit. A federal investigation targeting the judge came to light in 2007 when the FBI searched Blitch's office soon after Clinch County commissioners accused him of ordering $73,000 in secret payments to employees that were kept off the books and never taxed.
Misconduct charges by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, an agency that investigates judges, forced Blitch to resign in May 2008.
Two months later, federal prosecutors indicted Blitch on criminal charges that accused him of fixing cases, appointing his former law partner to a judgeship in exchange for legal services and making illegal payments to employees.
Speaking in a soft voice, Bitch pleaded guilty to only a single charge of honest service fraud conspiracy. He admitted he had negotiated deals for criminal defendants outside the courtroom - reducing sentences and bonds, terminating probations and ordering early releases from jail or prison without holding hearings or informing prosecutors.
Asked by the judge if he truly was guilty, Blitch replied: "Yes, sir. I am responsible for it too."
Lawson pressed acting U.S. Attorney G.F. Peterman III and his prosecutors on why they decided against taking Blitch to trial, which had been scheduled to begin Oct. 19.
Prosecutors said Blitch's age and health were a factor. Blitch suffered a near-fatal illness when his appendix ruptured in May. His doctor has said Blitch's condition was so severe that he spent a week on life support.
But Peterman also acknowledged prosecutors' evidence against Blitch may not have been enough to persuade a jury to convict him on the wide range of corruption charges in the 14-count indictment.
"I will not say this prosecution has been the government's finest hour," Peterman told the judge.
Blitch's attorney, Robert Willis, emphasized that no evidence in the case showed Blitch traded favors for money or used his office to enrich himself.
"There is no suggestion at any time that he sold his office or was corrupt in a traditional sense," Willis said.
In sparsely populated Clinch County, on the western edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, Blitch rose to power from a prominent family.
The judge's father was the wealthy owner of substantial timber acreage and the ACME pharmacy in downtown Homerville. His mother, Iris Faircloth Blitch, in 1954 became the first woman in Georgia elected to a full term in Congress. Blitch's wife, Peg Blitch, was senator in the state Legislature from 1991 to 2004.
Under the plea deal, Blitch will be sentenced to probation and fined. He also agreed to surrender his license to practice law. No sentencing date has been set.
Prosecutors dropped charges that Blitch had ordered $73,000 in secret payments to five county employees. A 2007 audit prepared for Clinch County commissioners showed the judge had used court fees to make the payments for six years.
Also dropped were charges that Blitch appointed his former law partner, Berrien Sutton, to a juvenile judgeship and hired his wife as a court administrator in exchange for Sutton's legal services. Prosecutors said the couple earned more than $500,000 in the positions.
Sutton pleaded guilty in May to a single charge accusing him of taking the judgeship and the money. In exchange, prosecutors dropped charges against his wife. His sentence was delayed pending the outcome of Blitch's case.
Sutton and Daniel Leccese, Blitch's court clerk, both pleaded guilty to charges related to Blitch's case. Lawson said they would be sentenced to probation as well to ensure their punishment wasn't harsher than Blitch's.
Last year, a federal jury acquitted Clinch County Sheriff Winston Peterson of perjury and obstruction of justice charges related to the Blitch investigation.
In November, Lawson overturned a jury's conviction of Linda C. Peterson, a Clinch County magistrate judge, on charges of perjury and making false statements to police. The judge ruled prosecutors lacked evidence to sustain a conviction.