An appellate court ruled that a Black man had a right to a new trial and vacated his 10-year sentence on drug charges after a white judge said he "looks like a criminal" at a pretrial hearing.
Leron Liggins' conviction on two drug charges was vacated last week after a three-judge panel unanimously agreed that the judge's comment violated Liggins' right to due process, according to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion. Liggins was sentenced last year to more than 10 years in prison.
A Michigan grand jury indicted Liggins on a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin in February 2018, but the case didn't go to trial until years later.
A superseding indictment filed in 2019 added a count of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute heroin. Although Liggins initially indicated he would plead guilty, he changed his mind and decided to go to trial.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III voiced his frustration at a January 2020 hearing after Liggins changed his attorney for a second time, delaying the trial once again. He said he was "tired of this case."
"What do you want me to do? This guy looks like a criminal to me," Murphy said, according to the opinion. "This is what criminals do. This isn’t what innocent people, who want a fair trial do."
Liggins filed a motion for Murphy to be recused the day before his trial, which Murphy denied. He did apologize for his remarks, saying that he "lost his head" but that he could still be fair to Liggins.
"I give Mr. Liggins the same rights and opportunities here to demonstrate his innocence or lack of guilt as any other litigant, and I believe that my conduct at the final pretrial conference ... and in today’s hearing do not evidence any bias," Murphy said.
The three-judge panel disagreed, ruling Thursday that Murphy should have recused himself. Prosecutors argued that Murphy made the comments about Liggins' actions, not his race.
But the panel said that any reasonable person could interpret the remarks differently and that the court must protect against the appearance of bias.
"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. ... Beyond this remark, the district judge’s other remarks could be understood to demonstrate clear prejudgment of Liggins’ guilt," the opinion said.
Murphy's decision not to recuse himself was a violation of Liggins' Fifth Amendment rights, which ensure the right to a fair trial.
The panel did not rule on evidentiary issues Liggins presented, meaning federal prosecutors could still file for a new trial.
A representative for the U.S. attorney's office for Eastern Michigan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.
CORRECTION (Aug. 7, 2023, 5:55 p.m. ET): The headline on a previous version of this article misstated when the judge made his remarks. He made them at a pretrial hearing, not at trial.