LOS ANGELES – Comments made to potential jurors by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge regarding her distrust of plumbers has led to an appeals court decision overturning the murder conviction of Vincent Tatum.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Eleanor Hunter told potential jurors that she had “horrible” experiences with plumbers who had worked in her home. She said to the pool of potential jurors that "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 told the potential jurors that she often cited her distrust of plumbers as an example to caution them against making preconceived judgments.
Tatum, who was convicted in 2014 in connection with the shooting death of Victor Valentine in Los Angeles and subsequently received a 114-year prison sentence, was employed by a plumbing contractor. That same contractor delivered crucial testimony on behalf of the defendant and provided Tatum’s alibi.
When the contractor testified that Tatum was working when the murder occurred, the prosecutor claimed that the contractor was lying in an effort to help Tatum’s cause. Tatum’s attorneys argued that their client’s chances of getting a fair trial were hurt by Hunter’s comments about plumbers.
In a split decision supported by two of the members of a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, Tatum’s conviction was overturned on the grounds that the judge’s comments about her personal experiences with plumbers tainted the jury pool and led to an unfair trial.
“The court’s statement that plumbers who came into court were liars validated the prosecutor’s argument, irreparably damaging Tatum’s chance of receiving a fair trial,” the appeals court ruling said. The opinion said the judge’s actions “interfered with (Tatum’s) constitutional right to a jury trial.”
Justin Brooks, a California Western School of Law professor and director of the California Innocence Project, said he agreed with the appeals court’s ruling.
“Judges have a great deal of influence on jurors,” Brooks told the Northern California Record. “If the comment had been more general, it would have had no impact, but to specifically say that the judge doesn't believe plumbers and thinks they are liars when the key alibi witness works for a plumbing company creates real bias.”
Brooks said it is not at all common for a new trial to be held in a case where a judge was found to have made an error. He also stressed that the reversal ruling was not based on the innocence of the defendant, but rather on the judge in the case creating bias.
“This case is very unusual,” Brooks said. “Judges can make lots of errors and they can be found harmless (i.e. not impacting the ultimate result).”
Brooks said the case against Tatum can presumably still be retried unless key evidence or witnesses are no longer available.
“It will likely end in a plea or retrial,” he said.
Still, Brooks said judges need to choose their words carefully.
“Judges have a tremendous responsibility to take care with what they say in the presence of jurors,” Brooks said.