US Supreme Court holds judge who as a DA prosecuted defendant must recuse himself from appeals case

6/9/16  In Williams v. Pennsylvania, U.S. Supreme Court, no. 15–5040. (6/9/16), the defendant was charged with murder.  The then-prosecutor approved the trial assistant district attorney’s request to seek the death penalty and the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death.  That district attorney later became the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.


The defendant filed petitions for post-conviction relief seeking to have the conviction and sentence overturned. When the case came to the Pennsylvania Supreme court the defendant requested the former district attorney, and now chief justice, recuse or remove himself from the case because of a conflict of interest.  The chief judge refused to recuse himself, and thereafter the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the defendant’s petition for post-conviction relief.


The defendant then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, arguing the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution barred a person from being both the prosecutor and the judge in the same case.  In a 5-3 opinion Justice Kennedy agreed with that argument, and in so doing noted the then-district attorney himself had approved the death penalty, which is not a light decision to make.  Additionally Justice Kennedy said the motion for post-conviction relief contained allegations of misconduct committed in the then-district attorney’s office under the supervision of the now-chief justice, and so the possibility of actual bias was very real.  Although unstated by Justice Kennedy, in effect the now chief justice would be ruling in the context of a death case whether he properly ran the district attorney office. Justice Kennedy said, “Where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level.”  The Supreme Court then vacated the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s order denying the defendant’s petition for post-conviction relief.


The case may be found at:


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