When Michigan defendant Leron Liggins dismissed his second attorney in 2020, U.S. District Judge Stephen. Murphy III said he was “tired of getting the runaround.” Murphy, who is white, added, "This guy looks like a criminal to me ... 5his is what criminals do.” LIggins is Black. Though Murphy apologized and said he could preside over Liggins’s trial fairly, an appeals court panel disagreed, ruling that Murphy’s remarks “could be understood to demonstrate clear prejudgment of Liggins’ guilt.” The decision vacated Liggins’s 2021 drug conviction and 10-year prison sentence. He will get a new trial, reports the Washington Post. “Even if one were to assume a lack of racial bias on the part of the district judge, the remark nevertheless raises the specter of such bias,” said Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay. Wade Fink, an attorney for Liggins, said the decision showed the appeals panel was “willing to stand for justice.” Fink added that “regardless of what [Murphy] meant, it’s wholly unacceptable” but cautioned against “questioning the character” of the judge. “This case isn’t about his intentions,” Fink said. “This case is about the appearance and optics of what words mean when they’re said in a criminal case.”
In 2018, Liggins was indicted for conspiracy to possess heroin with intent to distribute. He was also indicted in a separate drug case in Kentucky. After the two cases were assigned to Murphy, Liggins had several court proceedings that delayed a potential trial in the Michigan case. He first indicated an intention to plead guilty, and then changed his mind. While presiding over the 2020 hearing for the second attorney to withdraw, Murphy spoke about the defendant’s “inability to work with” his first two lawyers. Liggins requested to speak twice during the hearing, but Murphy denied him the opportunity. Instead, addressing Liggins’s second attorney, Murphy said: “He’s alleged to be dealing heroin, which addicts, hurts and kills people, and he’s playing games with the court. Do you agree?” “I can’t argue with your logic,” the attorney said.