District Court Judge Steven Cranfill chose to remove himself from the case against Kenneth D. Vanderford after the man’s defense attorney raised concerns that Cranfill could be biased toward giving Vanderford a stiff sentence.
The case against Vanderford alleges the 46-year-old punished his teenage daughter by handcuffing and leashing her naked to a bed frame and making her use a bucket to relieve herself in the summer of 2010; he also checked his two pre-adolescent daughters’ genitals to see if they were virgins, according to an affidavit from a Park County Sheriff’s Office investigator.
Vanderford — who was already on probation for illegally accessing his former employer’s sales data in 2009 — pleaded guilty to three counts of felony child abuse on May 25 and was sentenced to five years of supervised probation. Following a plea agreement reached between the Park County Attorney’s office and Vanderford’s then-attorney, Bill Simpson of Cody, Cranfill agreed to suspend five to seven years of prison time and impose the probation.
However, Park County prosecutors allege that roughly a week after being sentenced, Vanderford violated the key term of his probation by contacting his two younger daughters. He was arrested on June 14 and has been held in the Park County jail since then on a $100,000 bond. He’s denied violating his probation.
A hearing to determine whether Vanderford did break the terms has been repeatedly pushed back for different reasons, including changes in Vanderford’s attorney and legal arguments over the way the sentence was imposed. Most recently, the hearing was set for Nov. 14.
However, in a filing submitted the day before the scheduled hearing, defense attorney Richard Jamieson of Casper asked for Cranfill to be disqualified from the case. Jamieson wrote that some time after the paperwork was filed to revoke Vanderford’s probation, Cranfill had asked the prosecutor, Deputy Park County Attorney Tim Blatt, if he had the ability to sentence Vanderford to more than the five to seven years.
“Further, upon information and belief, Judge Cranfill also stated something to the effect that this would be a chance to ‘redeem ourselves’ or at ‘redemption,’” Jamieson wrote.
Jamieson noted there has been significant publicity about the case. While not mentioned in the filing, the publicity included significant criticism from Park County citizens that probation was too light a sentence for Vanderford.
“The defendant certainly fears that the comments of Judge Cranfill to Mr. Blatt may have been motivated in part or in total as a response to the significant amount of publicity related to this pending matter and continue to interfere with his Constitutional right to an impartial tribunal,” Jamieson wrote.
In the filing, Jamieson said the comments he attributes to Cranfill “implies a potential bias and unwillingness to be impartial.” He noted ethics rules restrict judge’s private conversations with parties about pending matters and said a violation of the rules “gives way to speculation and distrust.”
In a Monday interview, Blatt confirmed the conversation had taken place and that Cranfill asked about the maximum penalty Vanderford faces — but he characterized the conversation differently than Jamieson. Blatt said he saw the inquiry from Cranfill as strictly a legal one: if a defendant’s probation is revoked, do they face the maximum penalty under state law (in this case, 15 years) or the maximum penalty laid out in the plea agreement (five to seven years)?
“I don’t think it in any way was improper,” Blatt said. He added that he never gave Cranfill an answer — which is also what Jamieson’s filing says.
As for the comments about “redemption” that Jamieson references in the affidavit, Blatt said that’s not anything he heard or told Jamieson.
“Judge Cranfill never used those words in the conversation I had with him, and I’m not sure where they came from,” Blatt said.
The Tribune was unable to reach Jamieson or Simpson on Monday afternoon to ask about the origins of those claims.
Blatt told the Tribune in June that he plans to seek the full five to seven years in prison if Vanderford’s probation is revoked.
The deputy prosecutor had acknowledged during the May 25 sentencing hearing that the plea agreement calling for probation instead of incarceration might appear lenient. However, Blatt said that with there being “no such thing as a sure trial,” he wanted to ensure Vanderford was kept away from the children for five years. Blatt said he also wanted to avoid making the children testify against their father and to let them hear an apology.
Vanderford did apologize at the sentencing hearing “for the way that this has all happened, the nature of these allegations, these crimes.” He had reportedly told Park County Sheriff’s Investigator Lisa Randol that chaining his teenage daughter to her bed was an attempt to get her attention for out-of-control behavior, and he compared checking his younger daughters’ genitals to checking their throats for strep.
In accepting the plea agreement and sentencing Vanderford to probation, Cranfill said he had “some reluctance, but I do so with the understanding that it will avoid the minors’ participation in further proceedings and all the emotions that go with that.”
Cranfill could have had another judge hold a hearing on Jamieson’s motion to remove him from the case — further delaying the proceedings in Vanderford’s case — but the Cody judge instead removed himself the day Jamieson filed his request. In the order, Cranfill made no comment about why he’d done so.
District Court Judge Wade Waldrip of Carbon County is now set to handle the case, with Vanderford’s hearing set for Dec. 4.