Drug Convictions Reversed due to Trial Judge's Biased Comments

The Case and Ruling

In late December, in United States v. Raymundi-Hernandez, the 1st Circuit Court reversed not only Mr. Raymundi-Hernandez's conviction for narcotics trafficking, but convictions of three other codefendants / alleged coconspirators in the drug trafficking ring, all for the same reason: The trial judge made comments in front of the jury that demonstrated bias against the defense. Specifically, the Judge commented that a defense witness's testimony was "irrelevant" in front of the jury.

The 1st Circuit disagreed, viewing the testimony to be highly relevant. But more importantly, the 1st Circuit vacated the convictions because the jurors may have perceived the judge to be biased against the defense. As a result, the jurors may have jumped on the bandwagon, believing that the Judge probably knows better than they do as to what is relevant and important in a trial, and probably has a better sense of who is telling the truth and who is not.

Jurors Reverence of Judges

When I was a young lawyer, I was taught that no matter what your feelings and almost no matter what the situation, you never show disrespect for a trial judge in front of the jury. Why? Because most jurors come to court with a deep respect for judges and what judges do. They see the judge as an important authority figure and look up to the Judge. They won't necessarily recognize if a Judge has crossed a line, because they are lay people who don't know the laws and the courtroom rules. But if a lawyer shows disrespect for the judge in response, the jurors will most certainly believe that the lawyer has crossed a line. They will put less stock in what the lawyer has to say from that point forward. Which would be ruinous to a client.

Judicial Impartiality

It is partly because of jurors' reverence for Judges, that state and federal constitutions mandate that a Judge must not only be impartial, but maintain an appearance of impartiality. For example, since 1784, Part I, Article 35 of the New Hampshire Constitution uses wonderful language (borrowed from the even-older Massachusetts Constitution), stating: "It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as impartial as the lot of humanity will admit."

Juror Vulnerability to Judicial Bias

Hopefully, it is obvious why we don't want biased judges. But one of the reasons that we can't even have an appearance of bias is that regardless of the judge's good intentions, jurors may defer to what they believe is the Judge's take on the situation rather than making their own independent judgment. That concern is what led to the reversal of convictions in Raymundi-Hernandez.