An Oklahoma judge faces losing her job after being accused of texting throughout her first murder trial – over the death of a two-year-old boy – including sending inappropriate messages about prosecutors, jury members and police officers.
Lincoln County District Judge Traci Soderstrom is alleged to have swapped more than 500 texts with her bailiff during the seven-day murder trial, despite asking jurors to turn off their own phones to focus on the evidence.
Footage of the trial, published online by The Oklahoman, showed Ms Soderstrom taking out her phone multiple times during the course of the trial and appear to be texting, as well as using applications including Facebook and Instagram.
The Daily Beast reported that court records filed on Tuesday claimed Ms Soderstrom had laughed about a prosecutor’s “baby hands”, speculated on whether a juror was wearing a wig, and described a testifying police officer as “pretty”.
She also allegedly speculated that a key prosecution witness might be a “liar” and praised the defence’s performance in the courtroom, asking the bailiff in one text if she could “clap” during opening arguments.
In a 47-page petition, John Kane, the chief justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, accused Ms Soderstrom of gross neglect of duty, gross partiality in office, and oppression in office. He recommended that she be removed.
“The totality of the text messages give the appearance [Ms Soderstrom] believed the defendant was innocent and that she wanted a particular outcome in the case,” Mr Kane wrote in the petition, according to The Daily Beast.
Ms Soderstrom’s attorney told The Oklahoman that she takes the allegations “very seriously” and was waiting on the full record from the Council on Judicial Complaints so that she could “respond appropriately”.
In the footage published by The Oklahoman, Ms Soderstrom can be seen holding her phone below bench level in her lap at numerous points throughout the proceedings. This included during jury selection, opening statements, and testimonies.
In Mr Kane’s Tuesday petition the contents of some of the messages allegedly sent by Ms Soderstrom to the female bailiff were revealed.
Speaking about the Lincoln County District Attorney Adam Panter, she allegedly wrote: “Why does he have baby hands? … They are so weird looking.” Ms Soderstrom also texted a laughing emoji icon to the bailiff, who had “made a crass and demeaning reference to the prosecuting attorneys’ genitals,” Mr Kane said.
In other bizarre messages to the bailiff, Ms Soderstrom speculated as to whether a juror was wearing a wig, writing “Look at that hairline,” to which the bailiff wrote back: “OMG. LOL.”
The texts also described the defence attorney as “awesome” and asked “can I clap for her?” during opening arguments. She also described a police officer as “pretty,” and added, “I could look at him all day.”
Mr Panter noted on Tuesday that Ms Soderstrom had “spent many hours of a murder trial involving the brutal beating death of a child, glued to her cell phone on social media rather than pay attention to the evidence,” and said that the texts about his genitals were “especially disgusting and outrageous,” according to The Oklahoman.
Khristian Tyler Martzall — the man who was on trial while Ms Soderstrom was on her phone — was eventually convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the 2018 death of two-year-old Braxton Danker, the son of Martzall’s girlfriend, and sentenced to time served.
Martzall’s girlfriend and Braxton’s mother, Judith Danker, pleaded guilty to enabling child abuse and was sentenced to 25 years. She was a key prosecution witness and was allegedly called a “liar” by Ms Soderstrom during testimony.
Ms Soderstrom has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of a hearing by the Court on the Judiciary, which will determine whether to remove her from the bench.
On Wednesday a telephone contact number for Ms Soderstrom appeared to have been removed from the Lincoln County Court website.