COURTS RecusalPosted by BS - 10/06/10 at 12:06 pm
State v. Atwood, 2010 ME 12, 988 A.2d 981, Alexander, J.
In this murder case, two issues were raised on appeal: (1) whether the trial court abused its discretion in declining to recuse itself; and (2) whether the court abused its discretion by considering inadmissible hearsay. The Law Court upheld the trial judge’s decision not to recuse herself after she found out that her former hairdresser was somehow related to the trial. She saw a photo about the case in a newspaper article and stopped reading it as soon as she recognized it was the former hairdresser. The defendant did not object after the judge disclosed this information and said that she was not going to recuse herself. She did, however, recuse herself from sentencing because she learned that the hairdresser had been involved with the defendant and that the defendant had previously been found guilty of assaulting the hairdresser.
The defendant argued that the recusal from sentencing demonstrated that the Justice was unable to render an unbiased verdict. The Law Court rejected this argument and found that the Court’s decision not to recuse itself for the trial was not only correct but was required under the circumstances. The Court said that a judge is as much obliged not to recuse when it is not necessary as she is obliged to recuse when it is necessary. The Law Court also found that the Justice had properly notified the attorneys and given them sufficient information. The defendant failed to show that he was deprived of an impartial tribunal.
The trial court admitted statements of the deceased, made within a week of her disappearance to family members and close friends, that she was planning to travel to Arizona with the defendant. The Law Court concluded that the statements were admissible under M.R. Evid. 803(1), the present sense impression exception to the hearsay rule, because they were relevant and highly reliable. They were reliable because they were made to both a family member and close friend, were specific in detailing the declarant’s future plan, and were consistent. In addition, the declarant’s disappearance on the day she had stated that she was supposed to leave on the trip independently corroborated the reliability of the statements, and the statements were relevant because they showed that the defendant had an opportunity to commit the crime.