PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Ordering a retrial for a man convicted of braining his roommate with an aluminum baseball bat, the Third Circuit ruled that any competent defense attorney would have sought to recuse the trial judge after she showed bizarre preoccupation with the opinion of actor Charlton Heston.
Dead 10 years this October, Judge Lisa Richette earned the nickname “Let ’em Loose Lisa” from Heston because of her apparent reputation as soft on crime.
Richette brought this issue to the forefront in 1998 while presiding over the bench trial of Paul McKernan in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
McKernan was charged with murdering his roommate, Mark Gibson, and Judge Richette summoned the victim’s family into her chambers for a lengthy conference on the second day of the trial.
The Third Circuit notes that attorneys for both sides were present, as well as a court reporter, while Richette grilled Gibson’s brother and mother about a website where they detailed their criticism of Judge Richette and the Heston controversy.
“Lisa Richette is a bleeding heart judge that often sympathizes with murderers and other violent criminals and gives them light sentences,” the website said.
Writing for a three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Jane Roth noted that Richette read this passage aloud, and took pains to assure the Gibsons that it was “a total lie.”
“It is difficult to convey in excerpts the inappropriate nature of this lengthy conference,” Roth wrote. “It is even more difficult to understand why defense counsel [Fred] Harrison failed to object to the proceedings or to move for the judge’s recusal at any point during the conference.”
After the trial resumed, Roth found McKernan guilty of first-degree murder.
McKernan’s appeals have been unsuccessful up until the Third Circuit’s reversal Tuesday.
“In a case such as McKernan’s, where the defense theory of the case was at least partially based on arguing a lesser degree of culpability, Judge Richette’s actions would have caused any competent attorney to seek recusal immediately,” the ruling states. “Judge Richette offered the victim’s family in a case in progress before her an opportunity to seek her recusal. She repeatedly implied that the assistant district attorney was the Gibsons’ attorney, when he in fact had no responsibility to the family of the victim, but rather to all of the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Most strikingly, Judge Richette sought repeatedly to assure the Gibson family that she was not ‘Let ‘em Loose Lisa,’ a judge who was incapable of issuing harsh decisions.”
Roth notes that Richette’s reputation prior to the trial might have made her a strategic choice to preside over McKernan’s trial.
But “by the time Judge Richette held the robing room conference and revealed herself to be actively concerned with the her image on the internet and the victim’s family’s perception of her, any competent attorney would have realized that the strategy had to be revised,” the ruling states.
Saying McKernan might have been better off had he not had counsel at all, Roth notes that the defendant did find Richette’s comments troubling, “only to have his attorney inexplicably talk him out of those concerns.”
McKernan was represented on appeal by Maria Pulzetti with the Federal Community Defender Office.
Joshua Goldwert argued for the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office.