Suspended Oklahoma judge faces removal from bench after probe into her text messages during murder trial

A suspended judge in Oklahoma could be permanently removed from the bench after an investigation uncovered more than 500 texts between her and a bailiff in which she allegedly mocked the appearance of a district attorney, called a witness a liar and expressed bias in favor of a defendant in a murder trial and against state prosecutors.

Lincoln County District Judge Traci Soderstrom, 50, should be removed from her position and disqualified from holding any judicial office in the state, Oklahoma Supreme Court Chief Justice John Kane argued in a petition filed Tuesday.

It alleged Soderstrom was captured on camera scrolling Facebook and accessing phone applications during the trial and argued she should be removed from office because her actions showed gross neglect of duty, gross partiality in office and oppression in office.

The Lincoln County Courthouse in Chandler, Okla.The Lincoln County Courthouse in Chandler, Okla.Google Maps

During the murder trial in June of a man accused in the beating death of a child, Soderstrom and her bailiff, Angela Miller, exchanged more than 500 text messages, according to the petition.

“The totality of the text messages give the appearance Respondent believed the defendant was innocent and that she wanted a particular outcome in the case,” the petition says.

On Thursday, Jari Askins, Oklahoma administrative director of the courts, said Miller “is no longer an employee of the District Court of Lincoln County.”

Miller could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Khristian Martzall was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the 2018 death of Braxton Danker, his girlfriend’s son, and sentenced to four years with credit for time served. He served no additional jail time, according to the petition.  

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Martzall’s girlfriend pleaded guilty to enabling child abuse and was sentenced to 25 years, it says.

Security video published by The Oklahoman newspaper of Oklahoma City showed Soderstrom texting or messaging for minutes at a time during jury selection, opening statements and testimony.

In one instance, when Martzall’s girlfriend was called as a witness in his trial, Soderstrom texted, “Can I please scream liar liar?” according to the petition.

When District Attorney Adam Panter was addressing the jury, Soderstrom texted the bailiff that Panter was sweating through his coat, to which the bailiff replied, “He’s gross and a horrible speaker,” according to the petition. 

In another text exchange, Soderstrom said the jury would hate the assistant district attorney, to which the bailiff replied, “Absolutely. He’s an arrogant a——,” the petition says. “The Bailiff then made a crass and demeaning reference to the prosecuting attorney’s genitals, to which the Respondent [the judge] replied with a ‘Ha Ha’ icon,” it says.

In another exchange about Panter’s appearance, Soderstrom texted her bailiff: “Why does he have baby hands? … They are so weird looking.”

In contrast, when she was texting about a defense attorney, Soderstrom said, “She’s awesome,” with the bailiff agreeing and responding, “She’s so smart,” according to the petition.

Soderstrom was elected in November and took the bench in January, according to the petition. Neither Soderstrom nor her attorney responded to requests for comment Wednesday. 

Soderstrom has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of a hearing by the Court on the Judiciary, which will decide whether to remove her from the bench.

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According to the petition, Soderstrom and the bailiff also discussed an instruction to the jury to consider second-degree manslaughter in the Martzall case. 

The pair discussed the sentencing punishments between second-degree manslaughter, compared to a charge of enabling child abuse, which Soderstrom explained over text was a much longer sentence than the two- to four-year sentence for manslaughter.

“Ahhh. And he’s already served that,” the bailiff said. Soderstrom then responded yes.

When Soderstrom testified before the Council on Judicial Complaints, which investigated the allegations and subpoenaed her personal cell phone records, she said her texting “probably could have waited,” rather than not be made at all, the petition said. 

Panter, the district attorney, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. In a statement to The Oklahoman, Panter said, “It is now well publicized that Judge Soderstrom 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.”

He continued: “But what is … in my opinion even more obscene is that now we are aware from the allegations that Judge Soderstrom actively attempted to undermine the State’s ability to successfully prosecute a child killer.”

Antonio Planas

Antonio Planas is a breaking news reporter for NBC News Digital. 

Donna Mendell and The Associated Presscontributed.