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Michigan Hall of Justice (Courthouse) - Lansing, Michigan

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A Black man in Michigan had his prison sentence cleared after a white judge showed bias in his pre-trial hearing.

Last Wednesday (August 3rd), Leron Liggins, who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for two drug charges had his sentence vacated. This came after a three-judge panel, in line with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that a judge violated Liggins’ Fifth Amendment right to due process by commenting that Liggins “looks like a criminal” in a pretrial hearing back in 2020.

U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy III, who is white, remarked as he presided over the hearing in January 2020. Murphy had been frustrated with delays in the case due to Liggins, who is Black, deciding to change his attorneys in the time since being indicted in February 2018. Expressing frustration with the delays, Judge Murphy stated that he was “tired of this case.” “What do you want me to do? This guy looks like a criminal to me,” Murphy said before continuing: “This is what criminals do. This isn’t what innocent people, who want a fair trial do.”

The comments compelled Liggins to file a motion to have Judge Murphy recused, which Murphy denied after the case resumed in October 2021. “I was mad, I was hostile, I was disapproving, and I regret it. I made a mistake by yelling like that, but I wasn’t upset or concluding that Mr. Liggins was—was guilty of an offense or hostile or partial toward him,” he said, apologizing in his remarks to Liggins’ attorney.

The panel of judges highlighted this moment in their opinion. “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,” it said. Federal prosecutors could still file for a new trial, as there was no ruling on evidentiary issues presented by Liggins’ defense team.