Magistrate loses job

Published 9:24 am Saturday, May 23, 2009

WINTON – The outcome of an administrative hearing didn’t end well for a veteran Hertford County Magistrate.

Friday morning, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood issued his ruling in the case against Leonard E. Mobley Jr., permanently removing the county’s Senior Magistrate who stood accused of striking Jerome Cross, an Ahoskie man arrested for trespassing on Jan. 14. Following his arrest, Cross was taken to the Ahoskie Police Department (APD) where Mobley was the magistrate on duty.

Based on his findings of fact, Judge Hobgood ruled, in conclusion of law, that Mobley’s actions, while serving in his official capacity as a magistrate on Jan. 14, 2009, “constitute willful misconduct in office in that it was a physical assault upon a person in custody when that person had made no physical move toward the magistrate, and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office of magistrate into disrepute as that conduct might reasonably have impacted knowledgeable observers.”

Judge Hobgood added, “As a magistrate, Leonard E. Mobley Jr. had a responsibility not only to uphold the law and adequately perform the duties of his office, but also to behave as a responsible adult role model in the community her served. The court finds no lawful excuse or defense for the physical acts of Leonard E. Mobley in hitting Jerome J. Cross, a person in custody.”

“We were surprised at the outcome,” said Mobley’s legal counsel, Ahoskie attorney Perry Martin.

Martin said he was unsure at this time if Mobley plans to appeal, which is his right under the law.

“He and his wife will think about it over the weekend and we’ll get together on Tuesday and decide whether or not to move forward with an appeal,” Martin said.

If an appeal is filed, it goes to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Despite the ruling going against his client, Martin said he has a lot of respect for Judge Hobgood.

“The (North Carolina) Chief Justice appointed Judge Hobgood to preside in this case,” Martin stated. “It seems that all the highly publicized cases go to Judge Hobgood. That’s a credit to his fine reputation as a fair judge.”

Judge Hobgood, a Louisburg judicial official, was appointed to preside over this hearing after local District 6B Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Cy Grant recused himself from the case. Judge Grant cited that he and his wife were longtime friends of Mobley’s wife, 5th District Representative Annie Mobley.

Mobley, Cross take the stand

The two key players in the Jan. 14 incident, Mobley and Cross, each shared their version of what took place at the APD during the early morning hours of that date.

Cross was the first person to take the stand, called by Sherri Horner, an Assistant District Attorney from Greenville who was assigned to represent the state during the hearing.

He testified that he went to the APD early in the morning of Jan. 14 to file a complaint against Peggy Pressley, his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his 14-year-old son, whom he lived with at 304 West Church Street, Ahoskie.

Cross said met with Magistrate Mobley concerning his complaint, but Mobley refused to issue an arrest warrant for Pressley. Further, Cross said that Mobley told him that if he returned to Pressley’s residence that he would be arrested.

Ignoring Mobley’s advice, Cross said he went back to the residence and a short time later, APD Officer Chad Wheeler came to the home and took Cross into custody for trespassing.

Wheeler took Cross to the booking area of the APD and began processing the paperwork on the trespassing charge. While waiting, Cross said he asked Mobley, seated in the Magistrate’s office approximately 15 feet away from where he was seated, if he was sleeping with his son’s mother.

“He didn’t answer, so I added that whatever he was doing, not to do it around my son,” Cross testified.

A short time later, Cross said Mobley came out of his office into the booking area and told him…“you’ve got one more chance to say something to me.”

After that, Cross said Mobley…“walked around the table and hit me, not once, but twice, once in the jaw and the other around my mouth. I fell over in the chair and onto the floor.”

Cross continued, “I got up and said something; he (Mobley) asked if I wanted another, and I said no, I’ve had enough. The next comment he made was that he should’a knocked my teeth out.”

Horner then attempted to enter a digital tape recording of the incident, one recorded by Cross with a personal recording device.

Martin objected, citing federal code regarding the voice recording of an individual without the knowledge of the individual being recorded. Judge Hobgood asked Horner to explain to Cross the federal legal ramifications dealing with the recording. Once that was done, the judge overruled Martin, but added that the recording would only be allowed to collaborate or impeach the previous testimony of the witness, not for use as evidence.

The recording did back-up earlier testimony offered by Cross.

A videotape, recorded by the APD, was also used to document the events of Jan. 14. That tape (video only, no audio) was entered into the record after Horner called APD Chief Troy Fitzhugh to the stand. He testified it was a copy made off the original recording of images captured by the APD cameras.

Horner called Cross back to the stand to offer information as to what the video was showing. She asked Cross did he at any point strike or threaten Magistrate Mobley. He answered “no.”

After lunch, Martin cross-examined Cross, bringing to light his previous arrests on charges ranging from drug possession, to DWI, to domestic violence, to misrepresentation of filing a claim for employment security benefits.

Back to the matter at hand, Martin asked if Cross threatened Mobley at the APD.

“I said a few things, but never threatened him in any shape, form or fashion,” Cross replied.

“Do you understand that a magistrate is in control of his office,” Martin asked, to which Cross answered “yes.”

Martin asked if Cross was mad at Mobley.

“No, I was frustrated and appalled that he had refused to take my complaint (against Pressley),” Cross said.

Martin called Mobley, who has served as a Hertford County Magistrate for nearly 21 years, to the stand. There, the magistrate verified he had repeatedly warned Cross not to return to the Pressley residence on the night of Jan. 14.

“He was agitated, I knew that by the tone of his voice,” Mobley said.

Martin asked Mobley was Pressley a friend of his…“No, I’ve never met her,” Mobley answered.

Mobley said following Cross’ arrest on the trespassing charge…“he came back (to the APD) ranting and raving; he was loud. He became louder and out of control. The officer (Wheeler) did not suppress the situation. I decided to suppress the situation.”

He added that he felt threatened…“that’s why I reacted the way I did. I’ve been approached and threatened numerous times in my career. This situation was different. I conducted myself in a manner appropriate for this situation.”

During a brief break while Martin was researching his notes, Judge Hobgood inquired of the way Hertford County magistrates work. Mobley answered they were on call for 48 hours and then off 48 hours…“sometimes you might get one to two hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.”

Under cross-examination by Horner, she asked Mobley how exactly he felt threatened by Cross.

“His demeanor; his lack of ability to control what he was saying,” Mobley answered.

The magistrate also said he noticed Cross was not handcuffed, adding that arrestees are normally handcuffed to the table in the APD’s booking area.

“Why didn’t you ask the officer to handcuff him (Cross),” Horner asked.

“I shouldn’t have to tell Officer Wheeler how to conduct himself; he’s trained in law enforcement,” Mobley replied.

“You felt threatened with an armed officer in the room,” quizzed Horner.

“Yes, his (Wheeler) hesitation not to call down the arrestee led to a threatening situation,” Mobley noted.

“You struck him (Cross) twice,” Horner asked.

“Yes,” Mobley answered.

“Why,” Horner questioned.

“I was enraged at his demeanor, his lack of control,” Mobley responded. “I was defending myself.”