The purpose of a criminal trial is to see that justice is achieved through a truthful fact-finding process, either before a jury or judge. Innocence or guilt must be established in an ethical adversarial process overseen by a fair and impartial judge whose demeanor, conduct, and actions should never influence a jury’s ultimate verdict.
Special Functions of Trial Judge
The American Bar Association’s “Special Functions of the Trial Judge” publication informs that it is the judge’s primary responsibility to safeguard “both the rights of the accused and the interests of the public in the administration of criminal justice.” More so than the prosecutor and defense counsel, the judge must conduct criminal proceedings in a manner that preserves the rights of the parties and inspires confidence in the outcome for the public.
The handling of two recent high-profile sexual assault cases calls into question not only the personal integrity of the judges but the role that wealth and privilege play in judicial decision-making.
The first case involves Niagara County Judge Matthew Murphy, who sentenced an admitted rapist named Christopher Belter to probation in mid-November. Belter committed multiple sexual assaults in 2018 on teenaged girls in upscale Lewiston, New York.
The prosecutor called the sexual assaults “horrific acts,” demanding a stiff prison sentence. Judge Murphy viewed the crimes differently. He imposed an eight-year probated sentence, requiring Belter to register as a sex offender but felt that sending him to prison would be “inappropriate.”
It is widely believed in Niagara County that Judge Murphy, who has announced his retirement in December, gave Belter such a lenient sentence because Belter came from a family of wealth and social status. Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) filed a complaint against the judge with the New York Commission on Judicial Conduct, expressing the anger the sentence stirred in the local community.
The second case involves a former Baltimore police officer sentenced in late November to home detention following convictions in August for two counts of rape of a 22-year-old woman. Baltimore County Circuit Judge Keith Truffer imposed a 15-year sentence on 27-year-old Anthony Westerman but probated the entire sentence except for four years which Westerman must serve in “home detention.”
Judge Truffer then sentenced the ex-cop to one day in jail for the sexual assault of another woman, calling the assault a “boorish” act.
While a success for the defense, the two sentences stunned the prosecution, victims, and victims’ rights advocates.
As wealth saved Christopher Belter from prison time, the privilege of being a police officer kept Anthony Westerman out of prison.
Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder Aids Rittenhouse
But the judge who has damaged the judicial system’s integrity and undermined public confidence in that system more so than Judges Murphy and Truffer combined is Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder.
This Wisconsin judge has recently drawn sweeping criticism from many people in the legal community and the wrath of the general public for his handling of the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial.
A timeline of the Rittenhouse case has been well-documented.
A jury acquitted Rittenhouse on two counts of first-degree murder and assault of a third person during an August 2020 protest by Black Lives Matter in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The unrest followed the shooting death of yet another unarmed black man by the local police.
But Judge Schroeder’s strained legal rulings, bizarre actions, in-court behaviors, and hostility towards the prosecution led many people in the general public and some prominent legal scholars to believe that the judge was partially responsible for Rittenhouse’s acquittals.
Whether that is an accurate assessment will remain a contentious debate for years to come.
Judge Schroeder Temperamentally Unfit to be a Judge
But what is certain is that Judge Schroeder’s handling of the Rittenhouse case undeniably exhibited a bias in favor of Rittenhouse’s and contempt for the prosecution. Schroeder’s actions include but are not limited to:
- Encouraging the courtroom to give a round of applause to a defense witness, who is a war veteran, on Veterans Day in the jury’s presence.
- Admonishing prosecutors throughout the trial, at times in the presence of the jury.
- Allowing his cell phone to ring in the courtroom with Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA ringtone.
- Preventing prosecutors from referring to the two people Rittenhouse admittedly killed as “victims” but allowing references to “arsonists” or “looters.”
- Insinuating prosecutors had distorted video evidence to the Rittenhouse defense without supporting evidence.
- Calling for a recess after Rittenhouse broke down crying on the witness stand.
- Making an inappropriate, racist comment about Asian food in the presence of the jury.
- Preventing the prosecution from asking Rittenhouse questions that would have undermined Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim.
These actions prompted the Editorial Board of the Philadelphia Enquirer to conclude that Judge Schroeder repeatedly exhibited a bias in favor of Rittenhouse.
There are thousands of judges like Murphy, Truffer, and Schroeder in this country whose conduct and misdeeds go undisciplined, much less punished. These jurists are either intellectually dishonest, biased, or emotionally intemperate to be judges.
Lack of Judicial Oversight
This sentiment was detailed in an investigation by the Reuters news agency, which drew these harsh conclusions about the lack of credible judicial oversight:
“Judges have made racist statements, lied to state officials, and forced defendants to languish in jail without a lawyer – and then returned to the bench, sometimes with little more than a rebuke from the state agencies overseeing their conduct.
“Recent media reports have documented failures in judicial oversight in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Illinois. Reuters went further.
“In the first comprehensive accounting of judicial misconduct nationally, Reuters identified and reviewed 1,509 cases from the last dozen years – 2008 through 2019 – in which judges resigned, retired, or were publicly disciplined following accusations of misconduct. In addition, reporters identified another 3,613 cases from 2008 through 2018 in which states disciplined wayward judges but kept hidden from the public view details of their offenses – including the identities of the judges themselves.
“All told, 9 of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct, Reuters determined. They included a California judge who had sex in his courthouse chambers, once with his former law intern and separately with an attorney; a New York judge who berated domestic violence victims; and a Maryland judge who, after his arrest for driving drunk, was allowed to return to the bench provided he took a Breathalyzer test before each appearance.
“The news agency’s findings reveal an ‘excessively’ forgiving judicial disciplinary system, said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who writes about judicial ethics. Although punishment short of removal from the bench is appropriate for most misconduct cases, Gillers said, the public ‘would be appalled at some of the lenient treatment judges get’ for substantial transgressions.”
The judicial black robe does not change the character of the person donning it. The robe simply insulates them from accountability when they shame, disgrace, or destroy the confidence in what the robe stands for. Judicial oversight and accountability are just additional prongs of much-needed justice reform.