On Saturday, January 27, 2024, Colorado Politics reported that the Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments regarding whether a new trial is warranted for Donald L. Garcia due to an appearance of judicial bias.
Garcia was convicted of aggravated motor vehicle theft by a jury in Saguache County District Court in 2018. However, the conviction was later overturned by the Colorado Court of Appeals. It found that the trial judge, Amanda C. Hopkins, had briefly served as Garcia’s public defender during a brief hearing months prior to taking the bench. Colorado law prohibits judges from presiding over criminal cases where they previously acted as counsel, due to potential bias.
During oral arguments, the justices sharply debated the issue. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which appealed to the Supreme Court, argued Garcia’s defense attorneys likely knew about Hopkins’ prior involvement but stayed silent to try to get another trial. However, Justices Melissa Hart and Richard Gabriel questioned this account, finding no clear evidence the defense was aware or acted improperly.
The case has an unclear factual background. Hopkins previously managed the local public defender’s office and substituted for another attorney during a brief hearing for Garcia where he failed to appear. But it’s unknown if Garcia’s trial lawyers recalled this when Hopkins later presided over the jury trial that resulted in his conviction for aggravated motor vehicle theft.
Some justices expressed reluctance to automatically order a new trial without signs Hopkins’ conduct harmed the defense, while her prior role was very limited. But others noted doing so would properly deter future possible strategy of remaining silent about a conflict of interest until appeal. The Supreme Court did not issue a ruling and will have to determine if an appearance of bias alone warrants a new trial for Garcia. The outcome could provide guidance for similar situations going forward.
Source: Colorado Politics