Federal Judge Stephen J. Murphy III of the Eastern District of Michigan made a racist comment that a black man “looks like a criminal to me” in a court session, which resulted in the reversal of his conviction and sentence by a federal appeals court, The New York Times reported on Friday, August 4, 2023.

The comments were uttered in 2020, which was two years subsequent to the charges brought against Leron Liggins in Michigan for heroin possession and distribution. Subsequently, Judge Murphy offered an apology and linked his comments to his exasperation with Mr. Liggins due to ongoing procedural disruptions, which encompassed frequent shifts in legal representation and uncertainty about his intention to enter a guilty plea.

Mr. Liggins, a resident of Southfield, Michigan aged 35, faced charges of heroin possession and distribution, with the accusations dating back to February 2018. While the trial for Mr. Liggins was initially slated for June 2019, it was ultimately rescheduled five times, leading to a final trial date in October 2021, as evidenced by official court records. These successive procedural delays stemmed from various factors, including Mr. Liggins’s dissatisfaction with his legal counsel, which prompted three different attorney changes, as well as his vacillation on whether to enter a guilty plea, as affirmed by the appeals court.

During a hearing in January 2020, when Mr. Liggins sought to change his lawyer for the second time, Judge Murphy accused Mr. Liggins of “playing games” with the court. Judge Murphy said, “I’m tired of this case,” I’m tired of this defendant. I’m tired of getting the runaround.” He further uttered, “This guy looks like a criminal to me, this is what criminals do.”

Federal prosecutors contended that Judge Murphy’s statements merely pertained to Mr. Liggins’ behavior, yet the appeals court asserted that an impartial observer could potentially perceive his comments as suggestive of bias. The appeals court declared that Judge Murphy’s remarks were “unacceptable” and infringed upon Mr. Liggins’s entitlement to a fair legal procedure. Consequently, the court mandated a fresh trial to be conducted under the supervision of a different judge. Judge Eric L. Clay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wrote in the opinion released, “Such remarks are wholly incompatible with the fair administration of justice.”

Wade Fink, the legal representative for Mr. Liggins, expressed that the appeals court’s ruling would contribute to reinstating faith in the judicial system. He emphasized the necessity for individuals to believe in the impartial treatment they receive, regardless of their identity. Fink remarked, “Instances like these undermine that confidence.” Mr. Fink further advised against speculating on the judge’s motives, stating, “This has nothing to do with Judge Murphy’s character, this is about the optics and the appearance of justice, which is every bit as important as actual justice.”

One day prior to the October 2021 trial, an attorney representing Mr. Liggins filed a request for the removal of Judge Murphy from the case due to his comments. Judge Murphy rejected the motion. During the trial, which occurred two years after his comments concerning Mr. Liggins, Judge Murphy issued an apology in which he stated, “I was mad, I was hostile, I was disapproving, and I regret it,” he said. Still, he maintained that he had been impartial toward Mr. Liggins. “Just because I got mad does not mean I’m biased,” he said. “I’m not, trust me.”

Uncertainty lingers regarding potential disciplinary measures against Judge Murphy, who assumed the bench in 2008 following an appointment by President George W. Bush.


Source: The New York Times