District Court: "I'm tired of this defendant. I'm tired of getting the runaround . . . This guy looks like like a criminal to me. This is what criminals do." Sixth Circuit: new trial, new judge


Due process safeguards against trial by an impartial arbiter. To ensure an impartial arbiter, courts must avoid even the appearance of bias, or, said differently, the objective risk of actual bias. In US v. Liggins, a district court's pretrial remarks crossed the line.

Leron Liggins was indicted in February 2018. During a lengthy pretrial process, he struggled to build durable relationships with his appointed attorneys, and wrestled with the decision to plead guilty or go to trial. Eventually, he decided to forego a plea and the district court set the matter for trial.

Two months prior to the trial date, Mr. Liggins filed a pro se pleading expressing dissatisfaction with counsel. The district court held a hearing, and when the judge learned Mr. Liggins wished to fire his attorney, the judge, admittedly, lost their cool. The judge said:

"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 February 6, 2018. We’ve got a case out of Kentucky that came here under Rule 20. Rule 20 says the reason for the transfer was the defendant has agreed to plead guilty. I feel as if the Court has been misled. I’ve been told in an official pleading and informally the defendant was going to plead guilty. We cancelled jurors. We got a trial date. Now we got this."

Mr. Liggins asked to speak, the judge said no, and then the judge addressed Mr. Liggins' lawyer, adding: 

This guy has got my attention, [counsel]. 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? 

The court granted counsel's request to withdraw, appointed new counsel and, eventually, the case headed to jury trial. Prior to trial, Mr. Liggins moved to recuse the court, citing the above comments as evidence of bias and thus reason to doubt the court's impartiality. Although the court apologized for and walked back the above comments, the court denied the motion. A jury convicted Mr. Liggins, the court sentenced him to 127 months, and Mr. Liggins appealed. 

The Sixth Circuit issued a published opinion reversing and remanding for a new trial before a new judge. 

Two pieces of the published opinion warrant comment. One, the court's statement that Mr. Liggins "looks like a criminal to me" raised the specter of racial bias. Regardless of the court's intent in making the remark, an objective risk of bias took root when the judge commented on Mr. Liggins' appearance, especially so because Mr. Liggins is an African American man. Second, the court appeared to prejudge Mr. Liggins' guilt. Casting Mr. Liggins' dissatisfaction with counsel and desire to go to trial as doing "what criminals do" sure looked like voiding the presumption of innocence. 

At bottom, the court's gratuitous, personal, and condemnatory comments too readily risked undermining public confidence in the judicial process. So the panel vacated Mr. Liggins' conviction.


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