A Milwaukee judge, in my opinion, has either a skewed view of or a blind eye to judicial rules that call for judges to avoid not only impropriety or partiality, but the appearance of impropriety or partiality.
A story headlined Judge, lawyer in John Spooner case have family ties in the local newspaper yesterday reported that the son the judge presiding over the trial of a man, John Spooner, charged with murdering a teenage boy, Darius Simmons, is married to the defense attorney’s daughter. The son and daughter have a child, which means the judge and the defendant’s lawyer share a grandchild.
The news story says the judge, Jeffrey A. Wagner, has pictures of the child on display in his courthouse chambers and photos or online of Wagner and the lawyer, Franklyn Gimbel, who is his son’s father-in-law, socializing at a number of events.
The judge, however, sees no problem and the defense attorney, of course, doesn’t either. More surprising to me is the prosecution’s position.
Although the lead prosecutor in the case, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams, raised the issue “early on”, according to the newspaper story, he’s quoted as saying his office left the decision up to the judge as to whether he should step aside so another judge could take over the case.
Other judges and a judicial ethics expert quoted in the story took a dim view of the judge’s decision.
This debate became public in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, which, in fact, was cited as having an impact on Spooner’s trial.
Spooner is a white man and the teen he shot to death (not just allegedly or accused of, but did as there is video of him doing so) is a 13-year-old African-American boy.
“A number of potential jurors for the trial — which will determine the fate of a Milwaukee senior citizen charged with fatally shooting his 13-year-old neighbor — said Monday they might have a hard time ignoring parallels to the Zimmerman case, and the reaction to the Florida jury’s decision,” a July 15 story said.
Although some might have thought the family ties and friendship between judge and lawyer would work in favor of the defense because the judge could not possibly be objective — however subconsciously — no matter how good his intentions might be.
But yesterday the defendant, John Spooner, was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, which would shoot down such arguments, right?
Perhaps, except that given the videotape, ironically from Spooner’s own security camera mounted to surveil the sidewalk in front of his house, and the eye witness testimony by the teenager’s mother who standing on the front porch of her house which is next door to Spooner’s, that verdict would not be surprising.
Yet, to come, however, was a second phase of the trial in which Spooner’s lawyer, Gimbel, was to argue that his 76-year-old client should be declared not guilty be reason of mental disease defect.
That phase hit a bump a few hours ago, however, when Gimbel said Spooner was “mentally unfit to continue the insanity plea portion of the trial,” according to an update
on the newspaper’s website.
Because of the, at least perceived, conflict of interest, it’s hard to see how the judge can avoid criticism no matter how he rules.