Fifth Circuit Returns Man to Death Row Despite Biased Trial Judge

For many, State District Judge Bill Harmon made a mockery of the murder trial of Carl Wayne Buntion, who was convicted of killed a motorcycle officer. Harmon was disciplined for his conduct in the trial and found to have a “deep-seated and vocal bias” against Buntion. Yet, that was not enough for overturn the conviction and call for a new trial with a competent judge. The Fifth Circuit has issued an order returning him to death row.

The account of the trial is unbelievably unsettling. During the 1991 trial Harmon told the defendant that he was “doing God’s work” in making sure that he was executed. In a particularly juvenile moment, Harmon taped a picture of the “hanging saloon” of the infamous Texas hanging judge Roy Bean on the front of his judicial bench. Harmon allegedly showed open contempt for Buntion’s witnesses and called an appellate court “liberal bastards”and “idiots” for ruling on the right to show the jury certain evidence.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt has overturned the conviction in light of the bizarre conduct of Harmon. In a 61-page opinion, Hoyt carefully describes how Harmon deprived Buntion of a fair trial. For a copy of that decision, click here.

Yet, the three judge panel effectively, found that a defendant is not entitled to a judge with a modicum of professional and legal judgment. The Fifth Circuit said that its hand were tied by federal law limiting the grounds for habeas relief and the difficulty in determining the impact of judicial bias:

Bias is a difficult claim to sustain under AEDPA because the Supreme
Court’s case law on bias has “acknowledge[d] that what degree or kind of
interest is sufficient to disqualify a judge from sitting ‘cannot be defined with
precision.’” Aetna Life Ins.Co.v.Lavoie,475U.S.813,822(1986)(quoting In re
Murchison,349U.S.133,136(1955)). . . .

To be clear, we find Judge Harmon’s actions and statements at issue in
this case to be very troubling and hardly reflective of the high standards that
judges should strive to maintain. The district court’s findings and rulings reflect
a similar disdain for Judge Harmon’s irreverent statements and actions both on
and off the bench. Although we might decide this case differently if considering
itondirect appeal, given our limited scope of review under AEDPA, we are
limitedto determining whether the state court’s decisionwas objectively
unreasonable. After a careful review of the record, we must therefore conclude
that Buntion’s allegations do not demonstrate actual bias under established
SupremeCourtprecedent such that this court can hold that the state court
decision was unreasonable.

For a copy of the Fifth Circuit decision, click here.

8 thoughts on “Fifth Circuit Returns Man to Death Row Despite Biased Trial Judge”

  1. We are indeed in frightening times as illustrated by this decision of the Fifth Circuit. I know enough of history to understand that miscarriage of justice has occurred numerous times in our legal history. Certainly, we’ve gone through periods where political philosophy trumped judicial fairness as characterized by many decisions affecting slavery, civil rights, unpopular political belief and the labor movement.

    At the risk of sounding like the old codger that I am, in the past there seemed to at least have been a modicum of logic in particular appellate decisions that at least presented a patina of judicial striving to dispense justice. The ‘original intent’ cabal has succeeded in placing judges on the bench who do not really understand the concept of judicial fairness and equity. They betray their lack of an intellectual foundation to the concept of the law, ignore the common law concept of equity and foster an elitist viewpoint that has at base the presumption of guilt rather than innocence.

    The SCOTUS decision in the 2000 presidential race served as granting permission for faux conservative judges to work to obliterate mercy and fairness from most judicial canons.

  2. DW and Mespo,

    Thanks for your insights into this appalling decision by the Fifth Circuit, which should have had the courage to overturn this conviction due to Judge Harmon’s obvious bias. That so many judges refuse to show such courage because doing so might make them “look bad” seriously undermines the public confidence in the judiciary as a whole. I doubt that it’s only the Fifth Circuit that has shown such lack of courage either.

  3. Thanks Mespo,

    I wasn’t certain if this was a completely dispicable act. I see it was. This is a case for commutation then. As Judge Walton said, perhaps some of Scooters’ fine attorneys would give their services probono to help a less fortunate person.

  4. Jill:

    The dirty little secret is that the law they cite provides cover for the decision if you are looking for some. This was an emotionally charged case involving the death of a law enforcement officer. Judges feel real pressure in these cases to uphold most any conviction because the police are usually seen by the Judge as an ancillary to his/her function, plus he/she deals with them every day. If you don’t believe me try to convince the Judge in traffic Court that the police officer was wrong when he said you came through the radar beam at 95 miles an hour in your 1978 Gremlin 4 banger.

    The point of my comment is that Federal Judges have to be better than just protectors of the status quo and the power structure. We can probably surmise that the State appellate court had no problem with Judge “Wild Bill” Harmon’s conduct and ratified the conviction. The Feds have a duty to protect the system from this type of unfairness and this type of public criticism. They had many grounds to void this conviction but chose not to do so. The truth is that in many cases involving the integrity of the system, Judges keep two sets of books. If they want to correct an injustice they can find a “hook to hang their hat.” If they don’t, they can hide behind an interpretation of the law that gets them off the proverbial “hook.”

  5. Mespo,

    I agree with everyone that this is a morally reprehensible decision. Is the 5th circut, however retrograde, correct? The supreme court barred actual innocence in death cases (a real low), so are they following the law? I don’t know, this is a genuine question.



  6. Susan and Mespo,

    The Fifth Circuit is a pale shadow of its former self. Now a hotbed of half-baked judicial talents and frankly political hacks. I find it the most loathsome Circuit and pity the fact that any justice has to pass through its “portals” to be mangled.

    Its just a sign of our upside down times that the 9th Circuit gets laughed at, in public, by a sitting Justice (Alito in a recent conference aside)and the 5th gets praise!

  7. I really don’t understand why judges like Judge Harmon, who in this case displayed such an obvious bias toward this defendant, which ensured that he did NOT get a fair trial, aren’t formally disciplined and then removed from the bench. Or, if not removed entirely, then certainly yanked from presiding in criminal cases. It is even more disturbing — to put it mildly — that their fellow judges refused to acknowledge the great harm Judge Harmon had done, and reversed the conviction and given the case to a different judge. I don’t know if this defendant was guilty or not, but ANY judge who does this sort of thing is risking a legitimate conviction to be overtured because of what can only be called Judicial Misconduct, if not Obstruction of Justice.

    But in light of the current environment in law and politics, why should any of us be too surprised? We already have a PRESIDENT disregarding the Constitution whenever it suits him to do so, and an Attorney General who is still acting like the President’s defense attorney than someone who is supposed to be acting for the PEOPLE of this country. We have a Congress who has so far refused to take decisive action on anything this President has done, which basically gives him carte blanche to do anything he wants!

    Given all of that, it’s no surprise at all that some judges are acting like tyrants and despots in their criminal courtrooms and denying any defendant the right to due process. Some so-called “judicial inquiry commissions” refuse to do anything about judges who have been formally reported for wrongdoing. All this is what happens when bending, twisting and even breaking of laws is done at the highest levels of government and none of them are personally held accountable. I just hope this grim picture will change….IMMEDIATELY.

  8. After pronouncing the defendant’s right to a fair trial and an unbiased trial judge, the good members of the Fifth Circuit were kind enough to render this comment on the outrageous incidents described above:

    “Here, the postcard [of Judge Roy Bean, the “hanging judge”]that Judge Harmon placed on the bench during jury selection, while displaying a lack of sound judgment on his part, does not demonstrate any actual bias directed at Buntion. Likewise, the comments by the sheriff, the attempted removal of defense counsel, the grant and withdrawal of peremptory challenges, and the media contact also lack any indicia of particularized bias towards Buntion; therefore, these allegations do not support a finding of actual bias under the relevant Supreme Court law. The most disturbing comments by Judge Harmon were his statements that he was doing “God’s work” in seeing the defendant executed and that Buntion would eventually be found guilty. Buntion argues that this mindset unduly influenced the jury in his case. After reviewing the factual findings of the recusal judges as well as the state habeas judge, we are unable to conclude that their findings regarding the nature of these comments were an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” [footnotes omitted]

    One pales at the judicial hand-wringing and impotence expressed here as if a co-equal branch is helpless before the statutes passed by Congress. The Court’s inherent duty to maintain integrity in the system should have controlled here. Call it substantive due process if you will, although procedural due process would do just fine. The basis for the decision is simply baffling.

    There are imminently reasonable assertions, there are debatable assertions, there are unreasonable assertions and, lastly, there are laughable assertions. The Fifth Circuit has engaged in the latter, and, as we all know, when a man’s life hangs in the balance humor is something we can do without.

Comments are closed.