In State v. Richardson, 272A14, filed 1 September 2023, the Supreme Court of North Carolina reviewed the conviction and sentencing of the defendant.  The evidence indicated the gruesome and protracted abuse of a child that ended only when the child died.  The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and recommended a sentence of death.  The trial court imposed that sentence, and the case was appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

            In a split opinion, that Court found no error.  As is normal in any capital case where the death penalty is imposed, every viable issue was raised and the opinions are long and detailed.  One issue raised here is particularly interesting in light of some current questions being debated in state and federal courts relating to judicial disqualification and recusal.  (According to Wikipedia, the terms are synonymous.  My spidey-sense tells me that recusal is an action taken by a judge while disqualification is an action imposed upon a judge, but not always.)

            The trial judge assigned to the case was Judge Lock.  Before his elevation to the bench, Judge Lock was the elected District Attorney for then-District 11.  In that role, Judge Lock in 1992 prosecuted the defendant’s mother for the offenses of conspiracy to commit murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury.  The victim was the defendant’s father, and the defendant was three years old.

            Defendant’s trial was held in 2014.  The defense team sought to question Judge Lock about his recollections of the trial of defendant’s mother.  In response, Judge Lock made inquiry of Judicial Standards Commission, advising the Commission that he remembered the trial but had no memories pertinent to the defendant’s case.  The Commission responded that, based on the information provided, Judge Lock was not required to recuse.  Judge Lock then spoke with the defense team in open court, providing it with copies of his communication with Judicial Standards and advising that he would not recuse.

            The defendant then filed a motion to disqualify Judge Lock from presiding over his trial, arguing that the Judge’s decision to preside would prevent the defendant from calling the Judge as a witness, either at trial or, if necessary, in mitigation.  While the defendant did not contend that the Judge was biased, he also argued that the Judge’s participation presented the appearance of impropriety.  As grounds for the motion, the defendant cited the Constitution of the United States (Amendments 5, 6, and 8); the Constitution of North Carolina (Article I, §§ 19, 23, and 27); North Carolina General Statute § 15A-1223 (dealing with disqualification by a judge in a criminal matter if the judge might be a witness); and Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 3(C)(1)(b) (dealing with recusal where a judge had personal knowledge of the evidence or is likely to be a material witness).

            Judge Lock assigned the defendant’s motion to another Superior Court Judge, the Honorable James Ammons.  Judge Ammons found that Judge Lock was not a material witness in the defendant’s case and possessed no information relevant to the case.  Accordingly, he denied the defendant’s motion.  The Supreme Court of North Carolina denied the defendant’s Petition for Certiorari to review Judge Ammon’s ruling.

            Upon review of the defendant’s subsequent trial and sentencing, one of the issues that the Supreme Court addressed was Judge Lock’s participation.  The majority observed that the defendant did not claim that Judge Lock had knowledge of the facts in the defendant’s case.  As a result, the only issue was his position as a potential witness due to his 1992 prosecution of the defendant’s mother.  The majority noted that, pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A-1223, a party making a recusal motion must “demonstrate objectively that ground for disqualification actually exist,” (citing State v. Fie, 320 N.C. 626 (1987)).  After reviewing the record, the majority concluded that the defendant had not identified any particular knowledge that Judge Lock could have that would be relevant to the defendant or to his alleged offenses.

            The majority also addressed Judge Lock’s potential role as a witness providing mitigating evidence at the defendant’s sentencing proceeding.  Pursuant to State v. Smith, 359 N.C. 199, cert. denied, 546 U.S. 850 (2005), “feelings, actions, and conduct of third parties . . . are irrelevant in capital sentencing proceedings.”  Accordingly, the majority held that Judge Lock’s purported insights into the defendant’s parents two decades ago was conjectural and not the type of substantial evidence that a defendant was required to provide in order to compel disqualification.

            As to the defendant’s contention that Judge Lock’s participation created an “appearance of impropriety,” the majority pointed out that this particular phrase is no longer in the Code of Judicial Conduct.  Current Canon 3(c) provides that a judge should disqualify when the judge’s impartiality may reasonably be questioned.  Here, the defendant specifically noted that he did not question Judge Lock’s impartiality.

            The defendant also argued that his due process rights were violated by Judge Lock’s actions.  The majority cited Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. 1 (2016) for the proposition that “actual bias” must be demonstrated before a judge is required to recuse.  Here, no such bias had been demonstrated.  Accordingly, the defendant’s arguments relating to Judge Lock’s role failed.

            Justice Earls dissented on this issue, arguing that while she concurred with the majority in finding no error in the defendant’s conviction, she believed that Judge Lock’s failure to recuse constituted prejudicial error. 

            According to the dissent, the defendant’s trial strategy depended on presenting evidence of the trauma he experienced while being raised by dysfunctional parents.  As part of this strategy, defense counsel had to investigate the circumstances of the wounding of defendant’s father.  According to the dissent’s review of the record, the defendant hoped to use Judge Lock’s knowledge of the shooting and his observations of the defendant’s parents as mitigating evidence.  The dissent argues that it is “entirely plausible that Judge Lock developed his own personal impressions of [the defendant’s] parents and had the opportunity gain insight into their relationship and the circumstances surrounding the shooting.”

            Although N.C.G.S. §15A-1223(e) requires that a “judge must disqualify himself from presiding over a criminal trial if he is a witness for or against on of the parties in the case,” the dissent states that Judge Lock never disclosed anything that he knew, either to the defense or to Judge Ammons.  In short, the defense contends that Judge Lock should not have made a unilateral decision that none of the evidence he recalled from the earlier trial was relevant to the defendant’s case.  Because that evidence was not disclosed, the Court was unable to determine whether Judge Lock “was a witness for [the defendant] under § 15A-1223(e) such that recusal was required.”

            As with all cases where there is a capital verdict, the arguments on all sides are detailed and lengthy.  My synopsis does not include all the nuances raised by the majority and the dissent regarding Judge Lock’s participation.  The defendant will certainly petition the Supreme Court of the United States for certiorari.  We may yet see more of this heartbreaking case. 

­­–Bob Edmunds