By Michelle Watson, CNN
(CNN) — A Black man in Michigan had his drug conviction vacated due to a district court judge saying the man “looks like a criminal to me,” according to a federal appellate court ruling.
Leron Liggins was sentenced to more than 10 years in federal prison in March 2022 by US District Court Judge Stephen J. Murphy, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Michigan.
Murphy, who is White, made the comment about Liggins during a January 2020 court hearing, according to the appellate court ruling filed Thursday.
“Among the many disparaging remarks about Liggins that the district judge made, the most troubling is that Liggins ‘looks like a criminal to me,’” the appellate court opinion said.
Regardless of Murphy’s “intended meaning, we must consider the interpretation that a reasonable observer of this public hearing could have made, for we must guard against not only actual bias but also the appearance of bias, which ‘demeans the reputation and integrity’ of the court of which the district judge is a part,” the appellate court said.
CNN reached out to Murphy’s office for comment.
At another hearing after the remarks were made, the judge apologized to Liggins for losing his temper, saying he was frustrated with the many delays in the case, which had been pending since 2018, and was not prejudiced against Liggins.
Hearings for Liggins’ case were delayed multiple times, the opinion said.
“The complexity or long duration of a criminal case gives no license to a district court to prejudge the defendant’s guilt or otherwise dispose of the case in any manner except through fair proceedings,” the appellate court said.
“The Sixth Circuit sent a pretty strong message today that no matter who you are, what you look like, or what you’re accused of, you are entitled to be treated with dignity, respect, and, above all, actual fairness,” Liggins’ attorney, Wade Fink, told CNN.
“When judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police, or others fail to uphold their oaths in protecting the presumptively innocent, then community faith in our system is lost and our republic struggles to function,” Fink said.
“I want to be very clear that I have the utmost respect for Judge Murphy and people should not assume anything about his character,” Fink added, noting the appeal was about optics. “Criminal Justice requires not just actual fairness but the appearance of it, too.”
The appellate court’s ruling vacates Liggins’ conviction and sentence and orders a new trial in the case, which will be assigned to a different judge.
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CNN’s Jennifer Henderson contributed to this report.