Appeals court scolds federal judge for saying defendant ‘looks like a criminal’
A convicted heroin trafficker won a new trial — and a new judge — Thursday after a federal appeals court panel vacated his conviction and 10½-year federal prison sentence, saying his trial judge made “unacceptable remarks,” including that the defendant “looks like a criminal to me.”
The 11-page opinion from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati served as a sharp rebuke of U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy in Detroit and criticized his conduct overseeing the case of Southfield resident Leron Liggins, 35.
“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,” Liggins’s appeals lawyer, Wade Fink of Birmingham, told The Detroit News. “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.
Murphy, who was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2006, made the comment during a pretrial hearing in January 2020 after accusing Liggins of misleading the court about whether he planned to plead guilty.
“I’m tired of this case. I’m tired of this defendant. I’m tired of getting the runaround,” Murphy said before questioning Liggins’s lawyer at the time, Joseph Arnone.
“This guy has got my attention, Mr. Arnone,” the judge said. “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.”
The appeals court panel called Murphy’s remarks “unacceptable” and ordered a new trial to be held in front of a different judge.
“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.”
Murphy declined comment Thursday through a court spokesman.
Based on the judge’s remarks, Liggins tried to have the case assigned to another judge. Murphy denied the request.
“I was mad, I was hostile, I was disapproving, and I regret it,” Murphy said in court. “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.”
“We determine that the district court abused its discretion in denying Liggins’ recusal motion because the district judge’s remarks…demonstrated ‘a deep-seated . . . antagonism that would make fair judgment impossible,'” the appeals court judges wrote.
A jury convicted Liggins in October 2021 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. In March 2022, Murphy sentenced Liggins to 127 months in federal prison.
He is serving the sentence at a medium-security prison in Wisconsin.
Appeals court judges faulted Murphy’s conduct.
“Instead of maintaining the decorum essential to the administration of justice, the district judge permitted himself to make personal and condemnatory remarks about the criminal defendant before him,” the panel wrote. “Such remarks are wholly incompatible with the fair administration of justice.”