If a certain prosecutor caused an individual to be sentenced to death, and now that prosecutor is a judge presiding over a post-conviction matter for that same individual for the same crime, should that judge withdraw or otherwise agree to recuse himself from that matter? Without even knowing the law governing this situation, most people would probably think it would be unfair to allow the judge to preside over both matters. What if 26 years had passed since the individual was sentenced?

In its recent opinion in Williams v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that “... the passage of time [does] not relieve the former prosecutor of the duty to withdraw in order to ensure the neutrality of the judicial process in determining the consequences that his or her own earlier, critical decision may have set in motion.”[1]

In Williams, Terrence Williams was convicted of a murder in 1984 and his death sentence was approved by the then-district attorney of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille. In 2012, Williams filed a petition arguing that the trial prosecutor obtained false testimony and suppressed exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland.[2] Agreeing with Williams, the court stayed Williams’s execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing. The state asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose chief justice was former District Attorney Castille, to vacate the stay. Williams then filed a motion asking Chief Justice Castille to recuse himself, which the chief justice denied and joined the State Supreme Court opinion vacating the stay and reinstating Williams’s death sentence.

The Supreme Court found that “Chief Justice Castille’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”[3] Explaining further, the Supreme Court stated that “[u]nder the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case. The Court applies an objective standard that requires recusal when the likelihood of bias on the part of the judge ‘is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’ A constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case.”[4]

The impartiality of a judge is integral to our judicial system in the United States.  Judges make crucial decisions particularly in decisions where a jury is not involved. Proving bias on the part of a judge, although difficult, is not impossible. If you or someone you know may have had a biased judge presiding over a legal matter, contact a competent civil rights attorney immediately to determine whether a due process violation has occurred.


--By Ara M. Baghdassarian, Esq., Barnes Law

Ara M. Baghdassarian is an associate attorney with Barnes Law, licensed to practice law in California.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


[1] Williams v. Pennsylvania; http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-5040_6537.pdf at pp. 8

[2] Under the Brady Rule, the prosecution must disclose evidence or information favorable to the defendant in a criminal case that is known by the prosecution if requested to do so. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963).

[3] Williams v. Pennsylvania; http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-5040_6537.pdf at pp. 1-2

[4] Williams v. Pennsylvania; http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-5040_6537.pdf at pp. 2 (citing Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U. S. 868, 872.)