See People v. Wiggins, 2015 IL App (1st) 133033 (September). Episode 089 (Duration 8:23).
This impartial judge tanks a case. Which begs the question: How do you know when your judge has crossed the impartiality line?
How Do You Know When Your Judge is Tanking Your Case?
In this case, two attempted murder convictions are reversed because the judge abandoned his role as a neutral arbiter.
The case involved a gang shooting of an opposing gang member who was shot 4 times and survived.
Defendant signs a statement naming the two that shot him. At trial, however, defendant testifies that he lied in the statement.
Additionally, 2 other eye witness also come off their written statements.
These are some of the things the judge did during the trial…
- The court interrupted the State’s direct of the victim, so that the court could conduct the impeaching questions.
- The judge cut-off defense counsel’s cross examination several times when there was no objection from the prosecution. In effect, the court raised and sustained its own objection. Upon review, the appellate court found the defense was asking entirely appropriate questions when the trial judge interrupted to stop it.
- The judge further signaled to the jury that he was siding with the prosecution when he referred to the prosecution’s redirect examination of the victim as “what we just did.”
But if the jury missed that, they almost certainly picked up the judge’s impartiality when the court said to Defendant’s counsel, in front of the jury…
“watch yourself, man.”
The reviewing court was able to point to other instances of court error that influenced the reversal.
But Judges Are the Boss
During a criminal trial the judge has a right to question witnesses and even call other witnesses to the stand.
However, this power and authority by the court must be executed in order to elicit the truth or to bring enlightenment on material issues which seem obscure. A court may never do it in an unfair nor impartial manner.
Any obvious portrayal of bias or prejudice against a party is error.
Jurors are ever watchful of the attitude of the trial judge and his influence upon them is necessarily and properly of great weight. The lightest word or intimation is received in high definition by the jury with great deference and may prove controlling.
In a criminal trial, a hostile attitude toward an accused, or his witnesses, is very apt to influence the jury in arriving at its verdict.
Test To Ensure Judge Remains Impartial
The problem in this case was that the judge’s questions did not clarify the victim’s testimony about the shooting and what the victim saw.
The questions only presented to the jury a new basis for finding the victim’s testimony at trial less credible. Further, The judge’s sua sponte objections precluded the jury from hearing potentially admissible evidence that might have helped defense counsel make a better case for the defense.
So the test for us, when we are in the heat of battle during a trial, and the judge stops your flow to ask her own question, you need to be asking yourself…