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Teenagers' lawyers in murder case ask judge to recuse herself

In July 2015, a Scranton patrolman suffered fatal head injuries while pursuing three teenaged robbery suspects. The three men were arrested and charged with a number of crimes, including second degree homicide because the police officer died during the commission of a felony. Now, one of the defendants' attorneys has filed a motion asking Judge Margaret Bisignani Moyle, who is scheduled to preside at the trial, to recuse herself.

Motions seeking recusal - asking the judge to step aside - are not unusual, but the grounds for this motion may be unprecedented. The basis for the motion is the judge's deep involvement in the case prior to trial and potential bias. The first stage in a criminal proceeding is the preliminary hearing, where the charges are presented to the accused, the judicial officer determines whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to warrant a trial and a plea of guilty or not guilty is entered. Such hearings are normally handled by a lower-level magisterial judge, but the preliminary hearing in this case was presided over by Judge Moyle, who ruled that the case should proceed to trial. Later, she oversaw another hearing to determine whether the three men, who were all 17 when they were arrested, should be tried as juveniles or adults. Judge Moyle ruled that the three defendants would stand trial as adults. The defendants' lawyers say that, in presiding over these motions, the judge heard prejudicial testimony that may not be admissible at the trial itself.

The lawyer who filed the motion explained his reasoning. If errors are made at the preliminary hearing or at any other motion prior to trial, an appeal can be taken to the county judge who will conduct the trial. However, because Judge Moyle herself presided at the preliminary hearing, the right to make an appeal is meaningless. Also, the judge's exposure to unfairly prejudicial evidence may affect her ability to approach the case without bias.

This case shows how an apparently straightforward criminal case may become unexpectedly complex. For this reason alone, a person facing serious criminal charges (the defendants in this case could receive a sentence of life in prison if they are convicted) may wish to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney for an evaluation of the case. Such a consultation can also provide an estimate of the likelihood of receiving a favorable plea agreement or an outright acquittal.

Source: Citizen's Voice, "Attorneys for teens accused in Scranton cop's death ask judge to recuse herself," Peter Cameron, Oct. 18, 2016

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