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A Michigan Black man had his drug charges vacated last week after a white judge said he “looks like a criminal” during a pretrial hearing, violating the man’s right to due process.

According to NBC News, Leron Liggins, who was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for two drug charges, was indicted by a Michigan grand jury in February 2018 on a charge of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to distribute heroin. In 2019, a count of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute heroin was also added to the indictment. 

During Liggins’ pretrial hearing in January 2020, U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III became frustrated with Liggins after he changed his attorney multiple times, which continued to delay the trial. 

While voicing his frustrations about Liggins and the delays, Judge Murphy 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.”

After the judge’s outlandish comments, Leron Liggins filed a motion to have Judge Murphy recused, which Murphy denied; although he did apologize for his remarks, explaining that he “lost his head” but could still be fair to Liggins during the trial. 

“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.

But a three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with Judge Murphy in their appeals opinion, arguing that the court has a duty to protect against all appearances of bias.

According to the opinion, when Judge Murphy refused to recuse himself, he was violating Liggins’ Fifth Amendment rights, which ensure the right to a fair trial.

“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.

Since the panel of judges didn’t rule on evidentiary issues, federal prosecutors could still file for a new trial, but as of now, Leron Liggins’ 10-year sentence is no more.

If you would like to read the entire 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, click here.


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