(CN) – The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a convicted double murderer Monday, finding that Nevada’s highest court did not properly consider the risk of bias stemming from the trial judge’s refusal to recuse himself during a bribery investigation.
Michael Damon Rippo was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder by a Nevada jury and sentenced to death for the 1992 killings of Denise Lizzi and Lauri Jacobson in Las Vegas.
Rippo learned during his trial that the judge was being investigated for bribery, and he assumed that the prosecutors charging him were also playing a role in the judge’s investigation.
He pushed for the judge’s disqualification, claiming he couldn’t be impartial because one of the parties in Rippo’s case, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, was criminally investigating him.
The judge declined to recuse himself. Later, after the first judge was indicted on federal charges, another judge denied Rippo’s motion for a new trial.
The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed the denial, finding Rippo did not prove that state prosecutors were involved in the federal investigation.
Rippo’s subsequent application for post-conviction relief was denied, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed again, rejecting Rippo’s bias claim based on documents purportedly showing that the district attorney’s office participated in the trial judge’s investigation.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the judgment of Nevada’s high court, finding that it applied the wrong legal standard to Rippo’s case.
“Under our precedents, the Due Process Clause may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge ‘ha[s] no actual bias,’” the unsigned opinion states, citing previous rulings. “Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, ‘the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’”
The three-page ruling concludes, “The Nevada Supreme Court did not ask the question our precedents require: whether, considering all the circumstances alleged, the risk of bias was too high to be constitutionally tolerable.”
The nation’s high court granted Rippo’s petition for writ of certiorari and remanded the case to the Nevada Supreme Court.
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