Appeals court slams judge’s 'utterly racist' theory on Black defendant's frontal lobes

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A New York appeals court has reduced a burglary sentence because of “shocking” and “utterly racist” comments by a sentencing judge who said the disruptive Black defendant’s frontal lobes were likely “retarded in growth.”

The Appellate Division’s Third Judicial Department of the New York Supreme Court reduced the sentence for Angelo Johnson to five years in prison, followed by five years of post-release supervision, report the Albany Times Union and the New York Daily News. The July 1 decision is here.

Judge Frank LaBuda had sentenced Johnson as a persistent felony offender to 15 years to life in prison. LaBuda has since retired.

LaBuda told Johnson during a hearing: “I feel sorry for you. Because I know that if we were to look in your mind we would find that your brain, your frontal lobes, your decision-making processes are probably retarded in growth.”

LaBuda continued: “Because we have learned through medicine, through science, that physical mental abuse especially at a young age will stunt the growth of the frontal lobes, which prevents people from making decisions.”

His sentence, LaBuda said, “is in a way to make you safe from hurting yourself or others because I appreciate the fact that your brain is not developed through no fault of your own.”

The appeals court said LaBuda’s commentary “mimics 19th-century polygenism, a racist ideology that focused on the claimed inferiority of Black people based upon now debunked theories of reduced brain size.”

The incident happened in September 2018. At the felony offender hearing in the morning, Johnson was removed from the courtroom after the judge twice told him to sit down. After a recess, Johnson was back in the courtroom, but he told LaBuda that he thought his constitutional rights were being violated and he wanted to leave.

“For me to restrain my tongue and not to lash out, I don’t want to participate for this hearing,” the defendant said. Johnson was excused.

Johnson was present for the sentencing hearing the same day. While his lawyer was speaking, Johnson said he wanted to speak and said he was invoking his “Sixth Amendment right to dismiss counsel and speak for himself.” According to the appeals court, “the situation rapidly deteriorated,” and Johnson accused the court of being motivated by race.

LaBuda directed court personnel three times to bind Johnson’s mouth with masking tape.

“That dire directive was, fortunately, not implemented,” the appeals court said.

Johnson was occasionally disruptive during the proceedings, and his comments included “inappropriate vulgarities,” the appeals court said. But the court said it was “deeply troubled” by LaBuda’s comments.

“It is shocking that any court, in 2018, would refer to this Black defendant’s brain, frontal lobes and retardation of growth in concluding that defendant’s brain was not developed,” the appeals court said.

“Defendant is not a child or an adolescent but was a 41-year-old grown Black man at the time of sentencing. County court’s statements are textbook language that has been used since the late 19th century and even today to justify racist ideologies and beliefs that Black people are an inferior race. We find the court’s commentary dehumanizing and offensive. To invoke such reasoning today is utterly racist and has no place in our system of justice. … Not to be overlooked is the court’s abrupt draconian order to have defendant’s mouth bound with masking tape. The court’s remarks cannot be condoned or countenanced.”

LaBuda told the Albany Times Union that he had not read the court decision. When told that he was accused of racist remarks, LaBuda told the newspaper, “I think you should read what I said and not their opinion because I am sure there is nothing racial or ethnic about my comments at all.”

LaBuda retired in 2019. He ran for district attorney in Sullivan County, New York, on the Republican ticket last year, but he lost to the incumbent.

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