This is the property of the Daily Journal Corporation and fully protected by copyright. It is made available only to Daily Journal subscribers for personal or collaborative purposes and may not be distributed, reproduced, modified, stored or transferred without written permission. Please click "Reprint" to order presentation-ready copies to distribute to clients or use in commercial marketing materials or for permission to post on a website. and copyright (showing year of publication) at the bottom.

Judges and Judiciary,

May 28, 2024

LA County judge sanctioned for texting prosecutor during murder trial

The judge in question was presiding over a murder trial when she improperly initiated an ex parte communication with a prosecutor.

Judge Emily J. Cole

A Los Angeles County judge was given a public censure, the harshest punishment allowed short of removal from the bench, for texting a prosecutor about a murder trial and then trying to minimize her conduct once she was caught.

The Commission on Judicial Performance called Superior Court Judge Emily J. Cole's texts about a potential witness to a former colleague in the district attorney's office "antithetical to her role as a judge."

"She attempted to put a thumb on the scales of justice, crossed the line from an impartial judicial officer to an advocate, and displayed neither neutrality nor wisdom," Dr. Michael A. Moodian, chairperson of CJP, wrote in the report. "Her subsequent conduct, attempting to shade her initial misconduct in a more positive light in the court minutes and in her self-report to the commission, further reflects an initial reluctance to accept full responsibility for her misconduct, and an effort to minimize the gravity of her misconduct."

Paul S. Meyer, who defended Cole before the commission, said in a statement that the judge "deeply regrets, and has learned from, her inappropriate communication. She earned a reputation as an impartial jurist and is embarrassed by this isolated momentary lapse. She took immediate responsibility and emphasizes that this will not happen again."

Representatives for the LA County District Attorney and Public Defender could not be reached for comment about Cole's discipline.

Cole presided over the trial and retrial of Travis Rockhill. During the first trial, Rockhill made an allegedly incriminating statement in the presence of the judge's bailiff, Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Randy Smalls. People v. Travis Rockhill, XNOMA079537-01, (L.A. Super. Ct., filed Feb. 05, 2021)

As the retrial neared, Smalls was reassigned to a different courtroom to ensure that either party could call the deputy as a witness, if needed.

On April 28, 2023, Rockhill testified in his own defense. Deputy District Attorney Kevin Sexton, who used to work with Cole, came to court to observe Rockhill's testimony. After Rockhill left the witness stand, Cole excused the jury and had an off-the-record conversation with attorneys from both sides who indicated they didn't plan to call any additional witnesses. But on-the-record, the assistant public defender rested and the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Yujin Yi, said the government had already rested after putting on its case-in-chief.

Later that afternoon, Cole text messaged Sexton to ask why the prosecutor wasn't calling Smalls to testify as a rebuttal witness and implying someone should relay the message to Yi. Court resumed on May 1, and Yi chose not to call Smalls as a rebuttal witness, even going as far as making an official record that she was not calling any rebuttal witnesses.

Jury deliberations began the next day and on May 8 they returned with a guilty verdict. Sexton gave the text to Yi after the jury reached their verdict and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office disclosed the text exchange to the assistant public defender in the case and Supervising Judge Denise M. McLaughlin-Bennett on May 9.

McLaughlin-Bennett met with Cole and she agreed to recuse herself and disclose the communication to both attorneys. On May 15, in her chambers, Cole made the disclosure with an official minute order describing what happened. But McLaughlin-Bennett criticized the minute order and instructed her to amend it to "objectively state what happened in chronological order without trying to minimize, explain or distort facts."

Cole reported herself to the CJP on May 26, 2023. The CJP investigation found inconsistencies in her self-report. Cole downplayed her misconduct in court minutes and in her self-report to the commission by offering her personal testimony saying both parties had rested their cases when the prosecution hadn't rested its case, the commission said.


Douglas Saunders Sr.

Law firm business and community news

For reprint rights or to order a copy of your photo:

Email for prices.
Direct dial: 949-702-5390

Send a letter to the editor: