McKernan v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — reversal — Roth
The Third Circuit today reversed a district court’s denial of habeas corpus relief, holding that the trial counsel provided ineffective assistance and the state court’s ruling to the contrary was unreasonable.
Today’s case arose from a late-90s Philadelphia murder trial. Mid-trial, the judge told the victim’s family in chambers that she was very disturbed that they were criticizing her publicly and that she did not want to hear the case if they were unhappy with her. The family’s website described how the judge had been criticized by Charlton Heston as “Let ’em Loose Lisa” and “a bleeding heart judge that often sympathizes with murderers,” which the judge told the family was “a total lie.” Defense counsel was present when the judge said all this, but he advised the client not to seek the judge’s recusal. In the end the judge found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder.
In the part of the opinion likely to have the broadest significance, the court held that defendants’ right to an impartial trial extends to bench trials (trials such as this one where judges not juries are the factfinders). On the merits of McKernan’s ineffective-assistance claim, the court found that, “in the unique circumstances of this case,” counsel’s failure to seek the judge’s recusal was deficient performance because any competent attorney would have done so.
Joining Roth were Fisher and Greenaway. Arguing counsel were Maria Pulzetti of the EDPA Federal Community Defender for the petitioner and Joshua Goldwert of the Philadelphia DA’s office for the Commonwealth.