The Nov. 5 trial of a Williamsburg woman, who allegedly killed her husband and two children last year, has been put on hold.
Courtney Taylor, 43, is charged with three counts of capital murder in the Jan. 13, 2017, shooting deaths of Larry Taylor, 56, Jesse Taylor, 18, and Jolee Taylor, 13. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in her case.
During a court hearing Thursday morning, Special Judge Jeffery Burdette declined to grant a defense motion that he recuse or disqualify himself from serving as the judge in the case because of circumstances that occurred after court following an Oct. 17 hearing in the case.
During the hearing, defense lawyers stated that Taylor had not received any medication since she had returned to the Whitley County Detention Center from the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center (KCPC) the prior night. Taylor had been sent to KCPC for a psychological evaluation to determine her competency to stand trial.
During the Oct. 17 hearing, Burdette noted that the situation needed to be remedied and he met with Whitley County Jailer Brian Lawson briefly after the hearing. Lawson then met with attorneys for both sides to explain what was happening with Taylor’s medication.
Defense attorneys contend in court filings that during the Oct. 17 hearing, while she was in the courtroom, Taylor rocked in her chair and muttered throughout the proceedings, and after court that Burdette conducted his own investigation into Taylor’s mental health and behavior.
Defense lawyers contend that after Burdette left the courtroom, he interviewed several people about Taylor’s mental health and behavior, including speaking with the officer, who transported Taylor from KCPC to the Whitley County Detention Center on Oct. 16, and to Lawson and deputy jailers, who were guarding Taylor in a detention center holding cell as she was awaiting her court appearance.
“Judge Burdette told counsel that he learned through these interviews that Ms. Taylor was acting ‘fine’ and displaying no symptoms of mental illness or distress,” Defense attorney George R. Sornberger wrote in the motion.
“By obtaining this information about Ms. Taylor’s mental health and behavior, Judge Burdette violated the Kentucky Supreme Court’s Canons of Judicial Ethics and acquired personal knowledge or evidentiary facts concerning the proceedings that mandate his recusal from this case.”
During the hearing, Sornberger quoted an Oct. 18 court order by Burdette where the judge noted that on Oct. 17 he spoke with the jailer about the medication issue, and was advised that medication would resume after the jail doctor examined Taylor.
“It was further advised that the defendant was not exhibiting symptoms shown in court since returning to the detention center. In fact, several witnesses, including jailers and bailiffs, indicated that the defendant was talkative, cordial and otherwise normal while in jail, during transport and in holding immediately before the commencement of court. Nevertheless, the jail shall reinstate the defendant’s medication regiments as prescribed by a medical professional,” Sornberger said reading from the order.
“The focus of the courts questioning of these witnesses were aspects of Courtney Taylor’s mental health and behavior,” Sornberger noted.
Sornberger contended that Burdette should recuse himself because he has personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceedings.
During Thursday’s hearing, Burdette disagreed with Taylor’s attorneys, and overruled their motion for him to recuse.
Burdette responded that during the Oct. 17 hearing, defense lawyers notified him that Taylor hadn’t received her medication since being brought back from KCPC and that he notified them in court that he planned to speak with the jailer about the matter.
“I did so basically at your request to reinstate her medications,” Burdette told Sornberger. “Then as I exited the courtroom and was offered that unsolicited information, I called for council to come back to the hallway, which they did, and then I walked away to allow you to interview the jailer and the bailiff at that time that is the true account of what occurred sir.”
Burdette noted that was no objection to him talking to the jailer about the medication issue.
“Let it be known that I questioned no one. I was offered that information voluntarily by the jailer and by the bailiff without question one when I asked him to resume the medication regiment for the defendant. I think as maybe as an excuse or details in regards to responding to me when I asked to get her back on her medications post haste was the answers I revealed,” Burdette told Sornberger. “I gave you notice of that because I wanted you to have notice of it. I put it in my order so you would have notice of it. I questioned no one.”
Burdette denied the motion for recusal, but converted it to a motion so the Kentucky Supreme Court could decide whether he should recuse himself as the judge in the case.
“I am going to send it up to the supreme court and allow them to certify. I am doing that on my own to see if I can stay in the case. I am doing that to let some other eyes look at it besides yours, mine and the commonwealth’s” Burdette said during Thursday’s hearing.
Jury selection had been slated to start Tuesday, Oct. 30, in Taylor’s case before Burdette cancelled the Nov. 5 trial and scheduled another pretrial conference in the case for Dec. 27 at 10:30 a.m.
So far court officials haven’t received a report from prison doctors concerning Taylor’s competency, which will necessitate a hearing. Officials agreed this will have to wait until the Kentucky Supreme Court decides whether Burdette can continue as the judge in the case.
Burdette noted this is another reason for postponing the trial.
Courtney Taylor is also charged in a separate indictment with two counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for pointing a 9mm handgun at Whitley County Sheriff’s Deputy Jonas Saunders and Sgt. James Fox, who responded to her residence to investigate the shooting.
Saunders shot her twice with his service weapon when she allegedly pointed a gun at him. Courtney Taylor was in the hospital for about two weeks before being released and taken to the Whitley County Detention Center, where she remains incarcerated in lieu of a $1 million cash bond.