Federal judge crossed the line with imprudent comments and trial interruptions, 4th Circuit says

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A federal judge “crossed the line” with comments and interruptions in a fraud case, but the defendant wasn’t entitled to a new trial, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the comments by U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar of Norfolk were “imprudent and poorly conveyed.” But the defendant, Jeffrey Martinovich, wasn’t entitled to a new trial in light of the overwhelming evidence against him and because there was no evidence the judge’s comments affected the jury verdict, the court said.

The appeals court also noted that Martinovich’s lawyer didn’t object to the judge’s comments, both sides were affected, and Doumar instructed jurors that his comments weren’t important. Above the Law and the Daily Press have stories on the Jan. 7 opinion (PDF).

The appeals court did, however, grant a new sentencing hearing because Doumar wrongly treated the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines as mandatory. Its opinion directed that a new judge conduct the sentencing.

The court cited this statement by Doumar: “I will follow the guidelines only because I have to. I find that they’re not discretionary, they’re mandatory, although people think they’re discretionary and although the courts have said they’re only advisory. But if you don’t follow them, you have to give so many reasons why you don’t follow them. It’s tough. It really is tough.”

Martinovich, the former CEO of MICG Investment Management, had been sentenced to 140 months in prison for misleading his hedge fund investors about the value of its investment in a solar energy company and a soccer team.

It’s not the first time the appeals court criticized Dourmar’s trial conduct, Above the Law points out. “Here, we are once again confronted with the district court’s ill-advised comments and interference,” the court said, citing five previous opinions.

In the Martinovich case, the appeals court cited instances in which Doumar stopped defense counsel’s questions about an email and about dates, directing the lawyer to “get to 2007.” The appeals court also highlighted this exchange:

Defense counsel [to the witness]: Could you look for that letter for me, please.

District court: Right now don’t you think a discovery deposition is not in order?

Defense counsel: I’m not conducting a deposition, Your Honor.

District court: Yes, you are. … You’ve asked him to go look for something, and that is discovery. Now, I don’t mind you discovering, but do it in a deposition before the trial.

The Daily Press covered September oral arguments in the case. The U.S. Attorney’s office argued that Doumar was “an interested, engaged judge, not an obstructionist judge” in the case, and he had a duty to move the trial along.

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