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.