The Boston Globe reported today that Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy has ordered a district court judge to recuse himself from the retrial of a case in which the district court judge found the defendant not guilty when Suffolk County prosecutors were not in the courtroom at the time of the trial.
The bizarre case dates back to June 25, when a woman was on trial in Chelsea District Court and charged with assaulting her former boyfriend’s new girlfriend. The alleged victim told the police that she was walking to work in October of 2013 when the defendant jumped out of a car and started to argue with her, poking a finger in her face. The defendant then punched the alleged victim in the head, ripped out her earring, and scratched her neck. The defendant told the alleged victim that she “got what was coming to you.” The defendant was charged with assault and battery.
On the trial date, the defendant’s attorney initially told the judge that the defendant planned to plead guilty to assault and battery. However, later in the morning, the defendant decided she wanted to have a jury-waived trial where the judge would listen to the evidence and decide if she was guilty or not guilty. There was a prosecutor in the courtroom and she told the judge she would “run down” and have the assigned prosecutor return to try the case. The judge said, “Just walk. You don’t have to run.” Eight minutes later, before the trial prosecutor had arrived, the judge began the trial. One minute later, the judge said, “After hearing no witnesses and no information from the Commonwealth and they’re not present, the court’s going to find the defendant not guilty. Thank you.” The prosecutor appeared in the courtroom about a minute later.
The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office objected to the judge’s clearly inappropriate conduct and the case was continued until July. The judge reversed his not-guilty finding at the July hearing, but then ordered the criminal charges against the defendant to be dismissed. The Suffolk District Attorney then filed an appeal with a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court. Justice Cordy reversed the trial judge’s dismissal of the case and remanded the case back to district court, where it would be handled by a different judge.
This case illustrates the dramatically different outcomes that can result from similar proceedings litigated in front of different judges. It’s unlikely that there is another judge in Massachusetts that would find a defendant not guilty when the prosecutor is not in the courtroom. Justice Cordy was right to remand the case back to district court and order a different judge to hear the case. All attorneys, whether serving as prosecutors or defense attorneys, expect an equal opportunity to try their cases in front of fair judges. It’s a stain on the judicial system when something like this happens. If the judge believed the defendant was not guilty after hearing the Commonwealth’s evidence against her, it would have been entirely appropriate for him to find the defendant not guilty. However, preventing the prosecutor from arguing his case was unacceptable.