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Judge-to-judge e-mails trigger new trial

That improper juror communications would call a verdict into question is not that uncommon.

But you tend to sit up and take notice when a felon is granted a new trial because certain facially innocuous e-mails pop up in the trial judge’s in-box.

The District of Columbia charged M.C. with attempted murder and a bushel of other charges based on his allegedly firing a gun into a group of four people. One of the targets of the shooting was wounded.

The attack occurred in 2007 when M.C. was 15 years old. The prosecution’s case came down to the eyewitness identification of M.C. as the shooter, which was supposed to be in the form of testimony by I.W. and M.W.

All was going smoothly for the prosecution at trial until I.W. was called to testify and recanted his earlier identification of M.C. as the gunman.

I.W. gave some fishy answers as to why he was changing his story, but the prosecution ultimately was unable to elicit a satisfactory explanation from the witness.

Some light was shed on I.W.’s change of heart the following day at trial. Judge Patricia Broderick, who was hearing M.C.’s case, told the parties that she had received e-mail messages concerning I.W. from another judge on the D.C. bench.

As it turns out, I.W. had his own troubles with the law. In fact, I.W. had just pled guilty to unrelated juvenile charges in a hearing before Judge Broderick and his case had been referred to another judge.

The new judge in I.W.’s case happened to send Judge Broderick a couple of e-mails which revealed that M.C. and I.W. had recently crossed paths when they were in detention. What’s more, the judge mentioned in her messages that there had been a “physical altercation” between the two juveniles.

Naturally, this information went a long way in explaining why I.W. recanted his identification of M.C. as the shooter.

M.C.’s counsel immediately requested that Judge Broderick recuse herself from the case, but the judge refused, assuring the parties that she could keep separate the information about I.W. inadvertently disclosed in the e-mails.

With D.W.’s eyewitness identification still intact, the judge went on to find M.C. guilty on all counts.

Yesterday, the D.C. Court of Appeals vacated M.C.’s conviction and ordered a new trial before a different judge.

The court concluded that Judge Broderick’s receipt of the e-mails required her removing herself from the case under judicial canons calling for recusal when a judge has personal knowledge of a “disputed evidentiary fact.”

The court explained that “the record before us indicates not that the judge had overall impression of a witness from some previous ordinary contact, but that during the course of trial the judge received important information relating to a specific incident between the witness and the defendant that might explain why the witness recanted his prior identification of the defendant.

“The witness’s recantation of his prior identification went to a central issue in the government’s case against M.C. — the identity of the shooter — making I.W.’s trial recantation a ‘disputed evidentiary fact.’” (In re M.C.

- Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

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