Criminal Justice

Murder conviction is overturned because of judge's plumber remarks

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A California judge’s remarks about horrible experiences with plumbers were intended to warn potential jurors about the danger of prejudging witnesses. But they ended up backfiring.

A California appeals court last week tossed the murder conviction of the defendant, Vincent Anthony Tatum, because he occasionally worked for a plumbing contractor who was his key alibi witness, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post report.

Judge Eleanor Hunter of Los Angeles County Superior Court told potential jurors the plumber story on the first day of voir dire in Tatum’s trial. She said:

“The law says that you can’t prejudge anybody. You can’t automatically give somebody more credibility or automatically give them less credibility before they even take the stand. And I always use this example—and I’m sorry if somebody here is a plumber, but I’ve had horrible experiences with plumbers. I’ve just had horrible—during remodels or whatever, just horrible experiences. So if I hear somebody is coming in, and I hear he’s a plumber, I’m thinking, ‘God, he’s not going to be telling the truth.’ So obviously I have already prejudged that person, and I wouldn’t be able to be fair. Everyone who takes the stand, you start at the same position. Now, once they get up on the stand and they testify, that’s when you start to use your skills about judging credibility.”

Six of the potential jurors who heard Hunter’s story ended up on the jury.

The appeals court said in an unpublished, Oct. 3 decision (PDF) that Hunter abused her discretion when she denied a motion for a mistrial. The plumbing contractor’s credibility was at issue because the prosecution had argued he was lying for his friend. And telling jurors to ignore her comments would not have cured the prejudice created by her remarks, the court said in the 2-1 decision.

“Under these circumstances,” the appeals court said, “an instruction would have been as ineffectual as the famous words spoken by the Wizard of Oz, ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ ”

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