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Judge recuses himself in effort to ‘restore integrity’ to case involving fatal boating accident

LANCASTER COUNTY, Va. -- To the sound of gasps, with one man even exclaiming "Jesus," a Lancaster County judge recused himself Wednesday from the case of Richmond man expected to enter a plea in the death of his friend on the Rappahannock River in 2017.

This case centers around the death of 31-year-old Graham McCormick who was found dead in the Rappahannock River at the entrance to Carter's Creek in August of 2017.

An investigation led a grand jury to charge McCormick's friend, Rand Hooper, with involuntary manslaughter as well as failing to render aid.

According to a civil lawsuit filed by McCormick's family and settled, Hooper allegedly drove his boat drunk and crashed into a bulkhead near the Tide's Inn.

The lawsuit claimed the impact threw McCormick out of the boat, but Hooper left the scene without trying to locate his friend.

Graham McCormick

Wednesday, Hooper was expected to enter a plea, but in a surprising turn of events, Judge Michael McKenney announced he would recuse himself from the case telling the court he was touched by victim impact statements he received in the case, in particular, one written by Chip Woodson, who owns the property where McCormick's body was found.

"I just want justice to be done. That's what I wanted, and I couldn't tell what was going to happen.   When I had the chance to say how it has impacted me, I wrote the letter," Woodson said in an interview after the hearing.

"I read the statement ten times. I then called judges across the circuit," Judge McKenney told the court.

Woodson alleged in his statement that Commonwealth's Attorney Jan Smith told Woodson that he talked to the judge about the case and both decided there was not enough information to convict Hooper in a jury trial.

Rand Hooper

"This is not correct. Our system prohibits the court from having access to evidence before trial," Judge McKenney said. "I was not engaged in a plea agreement. I did not encourage it. I don't know, today, what is in it."

McKenney then apologized "that we have come to this circumstance" and extended his "heartfelt condolences" before recusing himself from the case.

"Our system depends entirely on acceptance of our institutions," Judge McKenney said. "I hope my action today restores integrity."

McCormick's brother Gordon said he disagreed with the plea agreement, yet he wanted a conclusion in the case. However, he now hopes the case will go to trial.

"It was another step I guess, was really looking forward to concluding this, but I think it's more important that this is seen through," Gordon McCormick said outside court Wednesday.

Winston Blair, who was there the weekend that Graham McCormick went missing and identified his body, attended the court hearing.

Her sister, Willis Blair, is the girlfriend of Rand Hooper, but Winston supports the McCormick family in the case.

She sent CBS 6 the following statement:

"I was looking forward to today bringing closure to this 22 month nightmare. I am grateful that Judge McKenney maintained his integrity and did what he thought was right by the justice system and for the McCormick family. His heartfelt condolences for the victims, family and friends increases my trust in the system. I agree with Gordon that it is more important that this is seen through."

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