A federal appeals court on Thursday overturned the sentence and the conviction of a Black man after a white federal judge in Michigan had said during a court proceeding that the man “looks like a criminal to me.”
The remarks were made in 2020, two years after the man, Leron Liggins, was charged in Michigan with possession and distribution of heroin.
The judge, Stephen J. Murphy III of the Eastern District of Michigan, later apologized and attributed his remarks to his frustration with Mr. Liggins for repeated procedural delays that included repeated changes of lawyers and indecision over whether he intended to plead guilty.
“Such remarks are wholly incompatible with the fair administration of justice,” Judge Eric L. Clay of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wrote in the opinion released on Thursday.
The appeals court said Judge Murphy had made “unacceptable” comments that violated Mr. Liggins’s right to due process. It ordered a new trial with a different judge.
Federal prosecutors said that Judge Murphy’s remarks had only referred to Mr. Liggins’s conduct, but the appeals court said that a “reasonable observer” could interpret his remarks as a possible indicator of bias.
Prosecutors and Judge Murphy did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
It was not clear whether Judge Murphy, who was appointed to the bench in 2008 by President George W. Bush, would face any disciplinary action.
Wade Fink, the defense lawyer for Mr. Liggins, said the decision by the appeals court would help restore confidence in the justice system.
“People have to take comfort in knowing that they’re going to be treated with fairness no matter who they are,” he said. “When they see things like this, it erodes that trust.”
Mr. Fink cautioned against guessing at the judge’s intentions.
“This has nothing to do with Judge Murphy’s character,” he said. “This is about the optics and the appearance of justice, which is every bit as important as actual justice.”
Mr. Liggins, 35, of Southfield, Mich., was charged in February 2018 with possession and distribution of heroin.
Though Mr. Liggins’s trial had been set for June 2019, it was eventually pushed to October 2021 after being rescheduled five times, according to court documents.
The procedural delays were caused by, among other things, Mr. Liggins’s dissatisfaction with his lawyers — whom he had replaced three times — as well as his indecision over whether to plead guilty, the appeals court said.
At a January 2020 hearing, on Mr. Liggins’s second request for a change of lawyer, Judge Murphy accused Mr. Liggins of “playing games” with the court.
“I’m tired of this case,” Judge Murphy said, according to court documents. “I’m tired of this defendant. I’m tired of getting the runaround.”
“This guy looks like a criminal to me,” he added. “This is what criminals do.”
A day before the October 2021 trial, a lawyer for Mr. Liggins moved to have Judge Murphy recused from the case based on his remarks. He denied the motion. At the trial, two years after he made the remarks about Mr. Liggins, Judge Murphy apologized.
“I was mad, I was hostile, I was disapproving, and I regret it,” he said. Still, he maintained that he had been impartial toward Mr. Liggins.
“Just because I got mad does not mean I’m biased,” he said. “I’m not, trust me.”
After a federal jury convicted Mr. Liggins, Judge Murphy sentenced him to more than 10 years in prison. Mr. Fink appealed.
The appeals court concluded that Judge Murphy’s remarks had “evinced bias and prejudice” and that Mr. Liggins was entitled to a new trial.
Prosecutors had argued that Judge Murphy’s frustration was “understandable” given Mr. Liggins’s conduct during the proceedings, according to court documents. But the appeals court said it did not find the conduct “understandable in the least.”
Repeated delays, the court said, “gives no license to a district court to prejudge the defendant’s guilt” or treat the case any differently from a fair proceeding.
Mr. Fink said his client’s behavior, which resulted in the delayed proceedings, was neither unlawful nor uncommon.
“Is there gamesmanship sometimes in the system?” Mr. Fink said. “Of course there is. But does that mean that a judge is entitled to lose his cool in the way that happened here? No.”
Mr. Liggins awaits a new trial under a different judge who has yet to be determined, Mr. Fink said.
Mr. Fink said he did not know whether the new trial could produce a better result for his client. Still, he said, the retrial was necessary as a matter of principle.
“It is very important that community observers of the criminal justice system, especially in a majority Black city like Detroit, can see that the folks in court are being given a fair shake,” Mr. Fink said.