A federal appeals court overturned the drug conviction of a Black man because a remark made by the judge in the case violated his rights.
“This guy looks like a criminal to me. This isn’t what innocent people who want a fair trial do,” uttered US District Judge Stephen Murphy III in a 2020 hearing. “I’m tired of this case. I’m tired of this defendant. I’m tired of getting the runaround.”
Murphy accused Leron Liggins of “playing games with the court” after he’d taken two years to prepare for trial to fight several drug charges from 2018. Within those two years, Liggins requested the transfer of his case from Kentucky to Michigan, several extensions of time on the speedy trial clock and filed to terminate his attorney. According to court documents, he also changed his mind a few times on whether he wanted to plead guilty to the charges.
Once he finally settled on going to trial, it was March 2020. Liggins was appointed counsel again but filed another request to fire them too. He was then criticized by Murphy for an “inability to work with his attorneys” who he praised as “two of the very finer lawyers in the district.”
Yo... at the end of the day, the defendant decides who goes into that courtroom with them, even if it’s nobody. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, ineffective assistance of counsel contributes to 80 percent of exonerations and was an issue in 56 wrongful convictions in 2022.
Read the appeals court decision from Reuters:
U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay, writing for the three-judge panel, said Murphy’s “troubling” comments that Liggins “looks like a criminal to me” at a January 30, 2020, pre-trial hearing called into question his partiality.
“We are highly concerned by this remark, especially when directed toward Liggins, an African American man,” Clay wrote. “Even if one were to assume a lack of racial bias on the part of the district judge, the remark nevertheless raises the specter of such bias.”
Murphy, who is white, had apologized for getting upset at Liggins, saying he made a “mistake” and had “lost my head.” But he declined to let the case be re-assigned, saying “just because I got mad does not mean I’m biased.”
Clay said that was the wrong call. Allowing Liggins’ heroin distribution-related conviction to stand when the judge should have been disqualified “would substantially undermine the public’s confidence in the judicial process,” he wrote.
Murphy’s refusal to admit to any biases or racism isn’t helped by the country’s long history of stereotyping of Black men as criminals, or by the mountains of data that show Black criminal defendants are often hurt by racial bias during their proceedings. The Registry’s 2022 report on race and wrongful convictions found 69 percent of drug crime exonerees are Black and their convictions are a result of racial biases.
Liggins may still face the court a new trial but another judge will be presiding over it.