Chua granted new trial, freed with plea agreement

Dr. Noel Chua walked out of the Camden County jail a free man on Monday afternoon.

The former physician's request for a new trial earlier that morning was granted unceremoniously in a Brunswick courtroom by Superior Court Judge Anthony Harrison. A Camden County court clerk had traveled there to record the case, which was immediately settled through a plea bargain with district attorney Jackie Johnson. 

There had been no publicity about Monday's hearing and defense attorneys wondered if it would be postponed due to Hurricane Irma. 

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen,” said Stephen Reba, Chua's lead counsel.

He learned only shortly before the hearing that Chua had been transferred to Camden and that the district attorney was moving forward with the case.

Chua pleaded guilty on Monday morning to involuntary manslaughter in the death of James B. Carter III, agreed not to practice medicine in Georgia and was banished from the 11 counties of the Brunswick and Waycross judicial circuits. He received an 11-year sentence and was ordered to be released, having already served his time. 

Under a Consent Order of Forfeiture that also was signed Monday, Chua also will receive the balance of assets and money that were seized when a RICO action was brought against him 11 years ago.  

The state opted not to prosecute him on the remaining charges of murder and violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act and Chua has waived his right to an appeal.

"The parents of the deceased victim were present in court, and the district attorney told the court that the family was in favor of the resolution to preclude further litigation and the accompanying trauma resulting from the death of their son," said a press release issued from Johnson. "(Carter's mother) addressed the court and expressed her desire for closure of the case."

She also addressed Chua, "stating she had forgiven him, but that … God had given him a second chance that her son would never have," the release added. 

With his walking papers in hand, Chua then returned to the Camden County jail for processing. 

"It was about 11:15 or 11:30 and his supporters just started showing up out in front of the jail," Chua co-counsel Jason White said. "(Afterward,) they were going to celebrate." 

A few dozen people greeted him with cheers when he finally left at about 4:45 p.m. White said Chua is currently in Florida and plans to remain in the United States. 

Plea and release

Chua was convicted in October 2007 of felony murder and seven controlled substance violations in the December 2005 overdose death of 20-year-old Carter, his patient and housemate at the time. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

According to court documents, the district attorney consented to the extraordinary motion for a new trial "in the interest of justice." However, recent developments in the case had raised some compelling questions about the legality of Chua's jury selection.

While the Georgia Supreme Court upheld Chua's conviction on appeal years ago, lead counsel Reba got an unexpected break about three years ago when he found a memo within the district attorney's old case file. 

Allegedly written by former county commissioner and attorney Steve Berry and provided to the district attorney, the document details which potential jurors supported or disliked the former sheriff, at the time a controversial figure in Camden County who supported Chua.

Reba filed a formal request for the memo under the Georgia Open Records Act but the district attorney did not provide the page that included the handwritten notes. Later, when questioned about the omission, the district attorney's office said it was "attorney work product" and therefore was exempt.  

Reba then filed suit under the state's Sunshine Laws. 

"The clear purpose of the document was to inform (Johnson) as to which potential jurors may have a prejudice against (Chua) prior to jury selection, based on any relationship with Sheriff Bill Smith or other factors, such as occupation or political affiliation," according to the open records lawsuit filed on Chua's behalf. "… The document raises serious constitutional issues related to the jury selection process of Camden County Superior Court ... noting in part: ‘I would avoid blacks on the jury. I understand you have some constitutional concerns that will have to be kept in mind, but try and avoid them.’”    

Johnson testified in the open records case that she had no knowledge of the memo, despite fighting Reba for its release for three years. She eventually turned over the entire memo to Chua's defense. 

Reba intended to use that evidence as a basis for seeking a new trial because a prosecutor cannot legally strike potential jurors on the basis of their race. 

As part of that quest, the defense subpoenaed Berry, now a bestselling novelist who lives out of state, when he was in St. Marys earlier this year for a book signing. Berry did not appear for the August court hearing, said White, but later agreed to give video testimony, in which he presumably would have been asked about Johnson's knowledge of that memo. Monday's hearing was scheduled before that Oct. 31 habeus corpus hearing could take place.

Personal victory

The release of Chua is also a personal victory for White, who was a law student when the doctor was arrested. 

Chua was his family doctor and also a friend of his parents, JoAnn and Gil White. The Whites were among the many people in Camden County who tirelessly campaigned to clear Chua's name — even years after his conviction.

"I have been involved with this case since day one," he said. 

White was one of the people who convinced Reba to take Chua's case and the metro Atlanta attorney even agreed to charge less if White would help out on the case as a legal clerk. When White got his law degree and passed the Georgia bar exam, Reba hired him as an associate at his law firm.

"He is a fantastic criminal defense attorney," said Reba. "Without a doubt, Jason is a huge piece of this win.” 

White said it was a team effort, praising Reba and also Brunswick attorney Mary Helen Moses, who was the counsel of record in the open records case. 

"If not for her, this never would have happened," he said. 

Being named co-counsel on the case was the culmination of a personal and professional journey that had started for White more than a decade ago. Seeing Chua finally released was just the icing on the cake. 

"He was arrested on my dad's birthday and released on my mom's birthday, almost to the day," he added. 

White said it was a stunning turn of events after more than a decade of fighting the the doctor's 2007 conviction — “Only in Camden County, let me put it that way."

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