A Black man had his drug conviction overturned on Thursday (August 3) after claiming that his rights were violated by a Detroit federal judge who said, “This guy looks like a criminal to me,” during his trial, CBS Detroit reports.
In a 3-0 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit denounced the comments made by U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III, who is White, against Leron Liggins.
"We are highly concerned by this remark, especially when directed toward Liggins, an African American man," the panel 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.
"The government assures us that this remark referred only to Liggins’ conduct, and not his appearance," the panel added. "But this court cannot decide what the district judge meant by his remark."
Sixth Circuit Judge Eric Clay wrote that if the conviction were allowed to stand it “would substantially undermine the public's confidence in the judicial process.”
Wade Fink, Liggins's attorney, expressed his satisfaction with the court’s decision.
"There are a lot of difficult moments in the career of a criminal defense lawyer. But today is one of those days where you’re reminded why you do what you do," Fink said. "The Sixth Circuit sent a pretty strong message today that no matter who you are, what you look like, or what you’re accused of, you are entitled to be treated with dignity, respect, and, above all, actual fairness.”
"When judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police, or others fail to uphold their oaths in protecting the presumptively innocent, then community faith in our system is lost and our republic struggles to function," Fink added.
During Liggins's trial in 2020, Murphy, who was nominated as a judge by former President George W. Bush in 2006, made the remark after he accused Liggions of deceiving the court by repeatedly switching from pleading guilty to choosing a trial in his case
"I'm tired of this case. I'm tired of this defendant. I'm tired of getting the runaround. Murphy said at the time in court.m” This has been going on since February 6, 2018.”
"This guy looks like a criminal to me. This is what criminals do," Murphy continued. "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."
Because of Murphy's comments, Liggins sought to have his case reassigned to another judge. Murphy denied the request.
In October 2021, Liggins was convicted by a jury of “conspiring to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin, and aiding and abetting his courier’s possession with intent to distribute heroin.”
Murphy sentenced Liggins to 10 years and five months in federal prison in March 2022. He was serving his sentence at a medium-security prison in Wisconsin.
In court on Thursday, Murphy offered an apology for his actions.
“I was mad, I was hostile, I was disapproving, and I regret it," Murphy explained. "I made a mistake by yelling like that, but I wasn’t upset or concluding that Mr. Liggins was — was guilty of an offense or hostile or partial toward him. I concluded he was acting in a manner which was frankly obstructionist and making me mad."
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