When Judge Eleanor Hunter Went Off Script On Plumbers
October 12, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Judge Eleanor Hunter probably thought she was being clever when she tried to use her bad experiences with plumbers as a way to illustrate for a jury the fact they shouldn’t prejudge witness:
Addressing a panel of potential jurors in her Compton courtroom, Hunter explained the importance of not prejudging witnesses and used her unfortunate run-ins with the tradesmen to illustrate her point.
Hunter said that she had “had horrible experiences with plumbers … during remodels or whatever, just horrible experiences.”
“If I hear somebody is coming in, and I hear he’s a plumber, I’m thinking, ‘God, he’s not going to be telling the truth,’” Hunter said.
It isn’t uncommon for judges to try to humanize themselves to juries. Some judges go through the brief juror questions themselves, describing their marital status, kids, and occupation like the prospective jurors have to do. Others just spontaneously share personal information. They might mention their spouse or some little tidbit about themselves.
Why Judge Hunter made those comments about plumbers is unclear. Maybe she thought she was being funny. Maybe she wanted to put the jurors at ease by sharing her quirky hatred of plumbers. Maybe she’s so self-important that she believed jurors cared about her opinion of plumbers. Regardless, her comments were certainly not part of the standard jury instructions regarding witness testimony.
That her comments were a deviation from the script judges in her jurisdiction are probably given for the topic isn’t such a big deal on its own. The problem is that the defendant’s key alibi witness was in the plumbing business:
The problem, according to a recent appeals court decision, was that Tatum, the defendant, worked for a plumbing contractor who was his key alibi. The contractor testified that Tatum was at work at the time of the slaying — a statement the prosecutor argued was a lie to protect his friend.
Jurors in the 2014 trial discounted the testimony and convicted Tatum of murder and attempted murder. Tatum was sentenced to 114 years in prison.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets what’s effectively a life sentence. Had Judge Hunter’s comments not amounted to saying that she thinks the primary defense witness is a liar by virtue of his profession, they might’ve just had a moment of levity in what was probably serious business. In retrospect, though, her statements were pointless and inappropriate.
Judge Hunter should serve as an important reminder about why it isn’t a good idea for judges to try to be cute. She probably doesn’t really hate all plumbers to the point she doesn’t believe anything they say, yet every defense lawyer from that point on is likely to file a request to get a new judge every time their client or a key defense witness is a plumber. After all, her comments, if true, suggest she’s unfit to judge plumbers or assess their credibility at all. Again, she was probably joking about or at the very least overstating her prejudice, but gambling about whether she was kidding or not is far too big a risk for any lawyer with a plumber client or plumber witness to take. Her cleverness may serve to disqualify her from hearing a large number of cases.
The other, more obvious problem is that her attempt to be funny has resulted in a murder conviction being overturned. If Tatum is innocent and the jury convicted him because they disbelieved his key witness due to what Judge Hunter said, she should be ashamed. Trying to insert a little humor in the trial cost a man years of his life. If Tatum is guilty, her comment causing a new trial is still pretty awful. The victim who survived will have to testify again, something he’s no doubt dreading. Closure will be delayed for the deceased victim’s family. They’ll have to endure another stressful trial and relive the death of a loved one.
It won’t be much consolation for the people affected by Judge Hunter’s comments that she didn’t do it intentionally:
At the outset of Tatum’s July 2014 trial, Hunter used the anecdote about plumbers to explain that her personal experiences meant that she would “have already prejudged that person, and I wouldn’t be able to be fair.” Hunter apologized to the potential jurors if any of them were plumbers but said she always used the example.
Considering that she realized she might offend plumbers, it’s unclear why she continued to make those sorts of comments. Her reaction to the defense’s request for a mistrial suggests a major stubborn streak might be responsible:
Shortly after the remarks, Tatum’s defense attorney sought a mistrial. Hunter refused, stating, “I could certainly tell the jury that was by way of example, and that’s a personal thing.”
Her unwillingness to grant a new trial when they were still so early in the trial process is pretty remarkable considering the defense brought it to her attention. Judge Hunter should serve as an example for judges who tend to dig in their heels; her refusal to redo a few hours of jury selection is now resulting in redoing the whole trial years later. Looking back, hopefully she sees not just that the comments were wrong, but that she made it worse by not striking the panel.
Tatum’s lawyer noted the obvious lesson judges should take away from this
Danalynn Pritz, who represented Tatum on appeal, said the case was atypical. She noted that judges always run the risk of a reversal error when they stray from standard instructions or invoke personal anecdotes from the bench.
Trial isn’t fun. Judges aren’t stand-up comedians, and neither are the parties’ lawyers. What matters is that the defendant gets a fair trial. Even the best jokes from the bench and the most well-intentioned judicial attempts to make the experience of trial a bit more pleasant for the jury shouldn’t interfere with that in any way.
The standard script might be dry and boring, but courts should be in the justice business, not the entertainment business. Judge Hunter showed us not just how bad judges are at humor, but the significant problems that can result when the courts stray from their actual function.