(The Hill) – A Black defendant has received a new trial in a Michigan court after a district judge, who is white, said that the defendant “looks like a criminal.”
The Washington Post reported that in a 3-0 decision, an appeals court panel of judges ruled to overturn Leron Liggins’s 2021 drug conviction and the decade-long prison sentence he was serving on the matter, giving Liggins the opportunity to seek a new trial.
The panel also ruled that the previous remarks made by U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III in a January 2020 hearing “could be understood to demonstrate clear prejudgment of Liggins’ guilt.”
Murphy, who was appointed by former president George W. Bush, expressed his frustration with presiding over Liggins, as the defendant moved to switch attorneys twice. Murphy, who presided over Liggins’s case for two years at the time, said he was “tired of getting the runaround.”
Liggins was indicted by a federal grand jury in Michigan on one count of conspiracy to possess heroin with intent to distribute in February 2018, according to the Post.
“This guy looks like a criminal to me,” Murphy said of Liggins. “This is what criminals do.”
Murphy, who also oversaw Liggins’s separate drug case he had in Kentucky, spoke about Liggins’s inability to work with his two previous attorneys and denied the defendant the opportunity to speak during the hearing, according to the ruling.
“He’s alleged to be dealing heroin, which addicts, hurts and kills people, and he’s playing games with the court,” Murphy told Liggins’s attorney. “Do you agree?”
“I can’t argue with your logic,” Liggins’s attorney said.
The case, which was delayed due to COVID-19, allowing time to Liggins to find his third and fourth attorneys, came to a conclusion in which his trial date was set for October 2021, the ruling stated.
This is where Liggins requested Murphy’s recusal the day before the trial, citing the judge’s remarks during the January 2020 hearing. Murphy denied the motion for recusal, according to the Post.
“I was mad, I was hostile, I was disapproving, and I regret it,” Murphy said in his apology to Liggins in court, noting he “lost my head”. “I made a mistake by yelling like that, but I wasn’t upset or concluding that Mr. Liggins was — was guilty of an offense or hostile or partial toward him.”
This comes as the panel determined with their decision that “[i]nstead of maintaining the decorum essential to the administration of justice, the district judge permitted himself to make personal and condemnatory remarks about the criminal defendant before him.”
Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay also wrote in Thursday’s ruling that he and other judges were concerned with the language Murphy used to describe the defendant due to being “directed toward Liggins, an African American man.”
“In this case, the risk of undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial process is significant,” Clay wrote in his opinion, saying that Murphy’s courtroom apology for his remark “did not adequately resolve the problem,” the Post reported.
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