Practicing law as a criminal defense attorney is not the only thing Casey Stokes does as an officer of the court and defender of the people in the chapel of democracy.
Stokes serves as the county attorney for Meigs as well as Decatur’s city judge in administering justice. He also practices criminal defense law in Bradley County and fills in for Bradley County Sessions Court Judge Sheridan Randolph when needed. Stokes may handle more court proceedings in one month than the average law-abiding citizen would like to see in his or her lifetime, but the 39-year-old Georgetown resident says he loves it.
Ever since he started practicing law seven years ago, the 6-foot-1 single attorney, built like an NFL linebacker, said he’s enjoyed his job and helping people whenever the opportunity presented itself. Born and raised on a farm in Birchwood, Stokes graduated from Meigs County High School but never left his roots as a down-to-earth, soft-spoken, standup kind of guy with a big heart and a hearty laugh.
As a judge and a criminal defense attorney, Stokes said he sees both sides of the story, giving him a unique perspective inside the judicial system and areas that could use improvement.
“I see a variety of things as a criminal defense attorney and as I handle civil cases in Meigs County,” Stokes said. “The county job is always interesting. There’s always a lot going on in the county.”
One of the things going on in many counties is a definite a rise in thefts, according to Stokes.
“In the rise we’ve seen in recent years, it’s oftentimes in support of a drug habit or meth habit,” he explained. “They’re not just stealing little things. The cases that stick in my mind are the guys who are stealing utility trailers, lawn mower trailers and four-wheelers — bigger items to sell for drugs. They’ll hook them [up] and drive off. That’s been happening a lot. With the economy being down, theft is up. I think there is a direct correlation between a bad economy and theft. But the economy is rebounding, so maybe we will see less thefts.”
When asked why he chose to defend those accused of crimes instead of pursuing a career in prosecuting criminals, Stokes said, “When I first got out of law school, Randy Rogers, a criminal defense attorney in Athens, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. So I just naturally gravitated to it.”
What Stokes said he discovered is that everyone accused of a crime is not guilty and certain laws make it easier for vindictive people to abuse the system by bringing false charges against the innocent.
“It happens more than people think. I won’t say it happens all the time, but it happens more than people think,” Stokes said. “People get accused of things they didn’t do or they do something small and get accused of something big. Things get blown out of proportion sometimes.”
Having seen this both as a criminal defense attorney and sitting judge, Stokes explained one way he determines if someone is telling the truth.
“A lot of times if you listen carefully you can get the real story out of it. The attorneys will ask good questions. If a person listens carefully they can catch on to who’s telling the truth. Usually, the biggest clue is that someone’s story doesn’t match. It keeps changing. It’s easy to keep the truth straight. But when someone is lying, it’s hard to keep their story straight. A lie takes a lot of maintenance.”
Stokes added that he learned a lot about listening and administering justice by observing the fairness in the courtrooms of Bradley County Sessions Court Judges Andrew F. Bennett Jr. (retired) and the honorable Sheridan Randolph — two judges he said he admires.
“When I was in the courtroom with Judge Bennett I noticed how he took a personal interest in people and listened to them,” Stokes said. “He always took his time with the people. He tried to be fair with everybody. Judge Randolph is a very fair guy. I’m not saying that because he’s my buddy. He is very fair. He’s able to separate everything and be a fair administrator of justice. They’re both fine guys.”
But Stokes has his own motto in life and in how he handles his legal proceedings, stating he always treats people the way he wants to be treated.
“That’s my main goal,” he said. “I feel like if I do that — I’m on the right track.”
Stokes said he has done pro bono work over the years for individuals in “a tough spot.”
“I can’t do it all the time,” he said. “But people fall on hard times and you want to help them or you know their family and want to help. You don’t want to charge everyone when they’re having a hard time. All lawyers do that, one way or the other. They do a lot of pro bono.”
Even so, Stokes said he is well aware being an attorney has its own stereotype, with people offering an endless array of “lawyer jokes” that comes with the territory, but he does not take it personally.
“I think lawyer jokes are funny. That doesn’t bother me. I haven’t had any harsh stereotyping, personally. You can’t let that stuff bother you. The best part of my job is helping people. It’s a good feeling to be able to help someone with a difficult situation and it turns out good for them. I feel good about that.”
When asked about the worst part, Stokes was quick to say it is delivering bad news to a client or defendant and their family.
“That’s always hard. I hate to give someone bad news,” he admits. “It’s hard to tell someone they’re going to jail. That’s a downer. When I represent someone, they’ll ask me to tell them what’s going to happen. It’s not easy to tell them they should take a plea or that they are going to do some jail time. That’s no fun — delivering bad news.”
Helping clients understand their legal rights under Tennessee law is also something Stokes said he enjoys doing — like explaining when someone qualifies for the judicial diversion program, which is a one-time opportunity, according to Stokes.
A judicial diversion is a formal program in which the state may agree to dismiss charges against a first-time offender after a certain period of time. It requires the defendant to enter a conditional guilty plea, be placed on probation for a certain amount of time with the understanding that if they successfully complete their probation and stay out of trouble, their charge can be dismissed and later expunged. Stokes explained, however, that Tennessee code 40-35-313 does not cover every form of criminal offense.
“Some cases are excluded — like sex crimes,” he said. “There is no diversion for sex crimes. There is no diversion for class A and B felonies. Typically, they are not eligible for a diversion. DUIs are not eligible for a diversion, either. But if you have a clean record, most cases can be diverted. A lot of people don’t know it but the state Legislature pulled the plug on pretrial diversions.”
While Stokes works out daily as a way to improve his health and fitness, the Decatur city judge and Meigs County attorney said there are areas he would like to see the judicial system worked on to improve its effectiveness as well.
“It seems like it’s too easy for a private person to get another person arrested by swearing out a warrant,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll see people go and tell a lie and get a warrant on someone. It’s just too easy. That system might need a little work where more scrutiny needs to be put on the person’s story.
“There need to be real consequences where people are prosecuted for lying about something as serious as filing a false police report. An innocent person may have been arrested, had to make a bond and might have lost a job over a lie. Sometimes people abuse the system when they get mad. There’s not enough scrutiny on that part of the judicial system.”
With a big smile and an even bigger laugh, Stokes is as polite as they come. But don’t let his downhome country manners fool you. This officer of the court wants to bring a judicial perspective to the legal forum that just may put a fresh shine on the halls of justice.