Court removes judge from child rape case, citing opinion sarcasm and 'personal animus'
A Pennsylvania appeals court has removed a judge from the resentencing of a convicted child rapist, citing the judge’s “demonstrated bias and personal animus” toward the defendant’s lawyer and the public defender’s office.
A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ordered the recusal of Judge Donna Jo McDaniel of Allegheny County in an opinion on Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. She was kicked off the case of Anthony McCauley, who was convicted of rape of a child and other offenses for sexual abuse of a minor when she was 6 and 12 years old.
McDaniel made “gratuitous statements” and sarcastic statements about the counsel in an opinion and made a veiled threat implying that their challenges to her decisions could be harmful to other criminal defendants, the superior court said. In addition, McDaniel “continually refuses” to follow sentencing mandates from the superior court in other sex offender cases, the court said.
In one case, McDaniel had imposed consecutive, statutory maximum sentences that deviated from guidelines and failed to consider mitigating evidence, the superior court said. In another, McDaniel had relied on unreliable facts and misinformation and didn’t properly consider statutory sentencing factors.
In both cases, superior courts reviewing McDaniel’s sentencing decisions had written “highly unusual footnotes” indicating they were troubled with McDaniel’s biased decision-making process and her inability to impose individualized sentences for sex offenders, the superior court said in its Wednesday opinion.
McDaniel had initially sentenced McCauley in November 2014 to 20 to 40 years in prison. In the first appeal, the superior court affirmed the convictions but remanded for resentencing because it was unclear whether McDaniel had wrongly imposed a mandatory minimum sentence. If McDaniel did not impose a mandatory minimum, she should reimpose the original sentence, the superior court said at that time.
On remand, McDaniel held a “brief and inadequate resentencing hearing,” the superior court said. First, she said her first sentence was not a mandatory minimum. Then, she resentenced McCauley, but the sentence was not quite the same; McDaniel took two days off the 20-year term and four days off the 40-year term.
McCauley’s lawyer filed a motion for recusal, which McDaniel denied. The motion should have been granted, the superior court concluded.
“There is substantial evidence that the trial court judge demonstrated bias and personal animus against appellant’s counsel and the public defender’s office to such an extent that it ‘raises a substantial doubt as to the jurist’s ability to preside impartially,’ ” the superior court said, using language in a prior opinion.
The superior court said it was particularly troubled by “gratuitous comments” denigrating the defense counsel in McDaniel’s opinion denying the recusal motion. They included McDaniel’s assertions that:
• It appeared likely that the defense counsel had, “in a fit of pique,” made it her mission to disagree with every aspect of McDaniel’s decision.
• Sentencing challenges were “reflective of defense counsel’s assertion of her agenda over the best interests of her client.”
• Challenges to her decisions made McDaniel question the credibility of the defense counsel, which “is also harmful to other criminal defendants who may actually have meritorious claims.”
• The defense lawyer had engaged in a “coordinated effort” to attack her sentencing decisions with lawyers in the two other sex offender cases.
“We note that the trial court did not make these gratuitous statements during an emotional and stressful courtroom hearing where the trial judge is attempting to control the courtroom and momentarily loses her temper,” the superior court said.
“Rather, the trial court made these derogatory comments during the deliberative process of drafting an opinion. The trial court’s animus and hostility to appellant’s counsel and the public defender’s office appears to be deep, unwavering and demonstrates an unjustified bias against the public defender’s office.”