An Oklahoma judge could be booted from the bench after an investigation found she texted her way through a trial over the beating death of a 2-year-old boy, with court records revealing she laughed about a prosecutor’s “baby hands,” wondered whether a juror was wearing a wig, and drooled over a “pretty” police officer testifying on the stand.
Lincoln County District Judge Traci Soderstrom swapped more than 500 texts with her bailiff during the seven-day murder trial, according to court records filed Tuesday. In those messages, the judge also speculated that a key prosecution witness might be a liar and praised the defense’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, recommended that Soderstrom be removed. Kane accused Soderstrom of gross neglect of duty, gross partiality in office, and oppression in office.
“The totality of the text messages give the appearance [Soderstrom] believed the defendant was innocent and that she wanted a particular outcome in the case,” Kane wrote.
Her fate will be determined in a hearing by the state’s Court on the Judiciary, which handles complaints against, and the disciplining of, judges. Soderstrom was suspended without pay on Tuesday pending the outcome of that hearing.
“Judge Soderstrom takes these allegations very seriously,” her attorney told The Oklahoman. “We are in the process of requesting the entire record from the Council on Judicial Complaints so that she can respond appropriately.”
Soderstrom, 50, was sworn in on Jan. 9. In June, she was assigned to her first murder trial—that of Khristian Tyler Martzall, who was charged in the 2018 death of toddler Braxton Danker. The Lincoln County District Attorney’s Office, which called it one of the worst cases of child abuse its prosecutors had ever handled, asked the jurors to find Martzall guilty of first-degree murder.
Soderstrom was on her phone for minutes at a time during jury selection, opening statements, and testimony—and was caught scrolling, checking Facebook, and typing on courtroom security video. A 51-minute cut of that footage, showing Soderstrom holding the phone below bench level in her lap, was published by The Oklahoman a month after the trial.
At one point in the video, the judge can be heard asking the jury to turn off their phones to “allow you to concentrate on the evidence without interruption.”
Kane’s Tuesday petition revealed the contents of some of the messages Soderstrom exchanged with her female bailiff. Of the Lincoln County District Attorney Adam Panter, Soderstrom observed that he was “sweating thru his coat” and asked “Why does he have baby hands? … They are so weird looking.”
When the bailiff later “made a crass and demeaning reference” to the genitals of two male prosecutors, including Panter, Soderstrom replied with a “Ha Ha” and laughing-face emoji, according to Kane.
As Martzell’s girlfriend and Braxton’s mother, Judith Danker, gave emotional testimony about the abuse Braxton had suffered, Soderstrom asked in a text “Can I please scream liar liar,” the petition alleges. (Danker was given a 25-year prison sentence by a different judge after pleading guilty to enabling child abuse in 2019.) In another message, Soderstrom snarked that prosecutors “just couldn’t accept that a mom could kill her kid so they went after the next person available.”
The judge was warmer towards Martzall’s lawyers, calling one defense attorney “awesome,” and other witnesses, including a police officer, whom she called “pretty,” and added, “I could look at him all day.”
In other bizarre messages to the bailiff, Soderstrom speculated as to whether a juror was wearing a wig. “Look at that hair line,” she wrote. The bailiff later wrote back: “OMG. LOL.”
Soderstrom also failed to recognize “that these types of communications should never be made at all,” according to Kane, who wrote in his petition that she’d told the Council of Judicial Complaints that she could have waited to send the messages. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s funny,’” she said. “Move on.”
Panter noted Tuesday that 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.
After the weeklong trial and eight hours of deliberation, the jury found Martzall guilty of second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to time served.
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