Federal judge who said defendant 'looks like a criminal' can't preside in new trial, 6th Circuit says

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The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati said U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III of the Eastern District of Michigan should have recused himself from a case after making “personal and condemnatory remarks” about a defendant. Image from Shutterstock.

A federal appeals court has overturned a Michigan defendant’s drug convictions after a Detroit federal judge presiding in the case said the accused man “looks like a criminal to me.”

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati said U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III of the Eastern District of Michigan should have recused himself from the case after making the “personal and condemnatory remarks” about the defendant, Leron Liggins of Southfield, Michigan.

The remarks violated Liggins’ Fifth Amendment due process right to a fair trial before a fair tribunal, the 6th Circuit concluded. The appeals court said Liggins should be retried by a different judge.

The Associated Press, the Detroit News and the New York Times have coverage of the Aug. 3 opinion.

Murphy was appointed by former President George W. Bush. Murphy is white, and Liggins is Black.

Murphy made the remarks at a hearing in January 2020 after the defendant fired his second lawyer and sought a third. Liggins had also waffled on whether to plead guilty, leading to additional delays in the case.

Here are Murphy’s remarks:

“I’m tired of this case. I’m tired of this defendant. I’m tired of getting the runaround. This has been going on since Feb. 6, 2018. …

“This guy has got my attention,” Murphy said to the defense lawyer. “What do you want me to do? This guy looks like a criminal to me. This is what criminals do. This isn’t what innocent people, who want a fair trial do. He’s indicted in Kentucky. He’s indicted here. He’s alleged to be dealing heroin, which addicts, hurts and kills people, and he’s playing games with the court. Do you agree?”

During the hearing, Murphy refused to allow Liggins to speak because he was still technically represented by counsel.

Murphy rejected a motion to recuse himself in the case the day before the trial was scheduled to begin in October 2021. At that time, Murphy apologized “for getting upset” during the January 2020 hearing.

“Just because I got mad does not mean I’m biased” against Liggins, Murphy said. “I’m not, trust me. I give Mr. Liggins the same rights and opportunities here to demonstrate his innocence or lack of guilt as any other litigant.”

By the time of trial, Liggins had been represented by two more lawyers. Jurors found Liggins guilty of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin and aiding and abetting his courier’s possession with intent to distribute heroin, according to the Detroit News.

The 6th Circuit reversed.

“Difficult as the recusal standard may be to reach, we find that the district judge’s unacceptable remarks at the January 30, 2020, hearing satisfy it,” the appeals court said in an opinion by Judge Eric L. Clay, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton.

Clay found Murphy’s remark about Liggins looking like a criminal to be “most troubling,” saying it “raises the specter” of racial bias.

The government had argued that Murphy’s remark was about Liggins’ conduct, not his appearance.

“But this court cannot decide what the district judge meant by his remark,” the appeals court said. “A reasonable observer could have interpreted the remark to indicate a prejudgment of Liggins’ guilt based on Liggins’ physical appearance.”

Murphy’s other “gratuitous commentary” also suggests prejudgment of guilt, the 6th Circuit said.

The appeals court also said Murphy should have allowed Liggins to speak during the January 2020 hearing. While judges may require defendants to speak through their lawyers, it was an abuse of discretion to require it when the defendant was dissatisfied with his lawyer, the 6th Circuit said.

The government had argued that Murphy should not have lost his temper, but his remarks were understandable because of the judge’s frustration with Liggins’ conduct in pretrial proceedings.

The appeals court rejected the argument.

“To the contrary, we do not find the district judge’s conduct understandable in the least,” Clay wrote.

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