(CN) - A judge's preconceived sentencing notions tainted the plea agreement of a scholar who admitted to engaging in sexual acts with an infant, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
The federal appeals court in San Francisco vacated Kenneth Martin Kyle's plea of guilty to one count of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, and ordered a new judge on remand.
San Francisco police arrested the former assistant professor of public affairs and administration at California State University, East Bay, in 2010, after finding images on his home computer of what turned out to be Kyle engaging in sexual acts with an adult woman and her infant child. Police were unable to identify Kyle as the man in the photos until the mother of the infant admitted that it was him. The FBI had put police investigators onto the case after an undercover agent allegedly caught him sharing child pornography online under the username "cruelsob."
Kyle reached a plea agreement with the government in 2011 that recommended a 30-year sentence, the mandatory minimum. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White rejected the agreement, arguing that it was too lenient and that Kyle deserved a longer sentence.
Later, White told Kyle's attorney that, "quite frankly, given what I know about this case, I'm prepared to impose a life sentence." He said that Kyle's crime was the "most serious conduct that the court has seen in a case, almost any case," according to the ruling.
Kyle's second plea agreement, which Judge White approved, was largely a copy of the first except that it changed the recommended sentence from 360 months to between 405 and 450 months.
On appeal, Kyle argued that the judge had improperly contributed to the plea-bargain process. The government countered that the judge's remarks were harmless because they were made in the absence of a new plea deal.
A unanimous three-judge appeals panel sided with Kyle on Wednesday, finding that the "District Court may not indicate what it might find acceptable or unacceptable in resolving the case."
"Absent the District Court's remarks, it is unlikely Kyle would have so quickly agreed to a significant extension of his custodial sentence in exchange for no additional benefit," wrote U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall, who sat on the appellate panel by designation from Los Angeles.
After setting aside Kyle's guilty plea, the panel ordered that the case be assigned to a different judge on remand.
"In this situation, we believe that the appearance of justice will be best served by remanding to a different judge," Marshall wrote. "Furthermore, the original judge has already expressed his view of the appropriate sentence for Kyle, and explained what plea agreements he would and would not accept. Even on remand, these statements would have an unavoidable impact on a new round of plea negotiations."