In a June 2023 case before the Appellate Division, Second Department in New York, the defendant successfully argued for a reversal of his conviction of robbery in the third degree and criminal possession of stolen property in the fifth degree. Originally, a jury found the defendant guilty after an incident during which he took several pairs of footwear from a department store. On appeal, he argued that the lower court deprived him of his constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. Looking at the record, the higher court agreed with the defendant and granted him an entirely new trial.
Facts of the Case
According to the opinion, the defendant walked in and out of a department store one afternoon in August 2018. When he walked out, the storm alarm started blaring, and a store security guard noticed that he had taken several pairs of footwear with him.
The security guard followed the defendant and tried to retrieve the stolen goods. The defendant reached for his back pocket and said, “Keep going or watch what’s going to happen to you.” The guard let the defendant go, but he summoned police officers to the scene. The officers arrested the defendant several minutes later, close to a subway station, and the defendant was criminally charged.
A jury later found the defendant guilty of robbery and criminal possession of stolen property.
The Court’s Decision
On appeal, the defendant argued he was deprived of his right to a fair trial. It was up to the higher court, then, to review the record and determine whether the lower court had tilted the proceedings in the State’s favor in any way.
Looking at the case, the appellate court noticed that the trial judge asked the witnesses many questions, including leading questions that seemed to be prejudicial against the defendant. The judge reminded the jury that the defendant threatened the security guard, and he noted out loud that the security guard said “please” when he asked the defendant to return the items.
All in all, said the court, the trial judge acted more like an advocate for the State than an unbiased court. Occasionally, the judge engaged in a “running commentary on the testimony against the defendant,” which led jurors to assume the court was siding with the State. Although, it is generally permitted that for the Judge to ask limited questions to clarify an issue or move the trial along the Judge may not act as an advocate or lawyer for one side or the other. Here the higher Court felt that the Judge had gone too far.
Because the trial court deprived the defendant of the fair trial he deserved, the defendant’s judgment was reversed.
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