The state’s Judicial Conduct Commission has publicly reprimanded two Jefferson County judges, stemming from social media comments and actions in a high-profile murder case.
Jefferson District Court Judge Sandra McLaughlin was publicly reprimanded Tuesday by the commission for a post on her “Judge Sandra McLaughlin” Facebook page in August 2017 in which she shared a news article about a murder defendant.
“This murder suspect was RELEASED FROM JAIL just hours after killing a man and confessing to police,” the post read.
The defendant, Deandre Williams, was arrested and charged with murder Aug. 2 and was released on home incarceration by a different judge Aug. 3.
A Louisville Metro Police arrest citation alleges Williams “gave a mirandized statement to intentionally shooting and killing” 20-year-old Robert Leachman.
The move was blasted by the police union and the police department, as well as McLaughlin.
The commission found the judge violated parts of the Code of Judicial Conduct that deal with refraining from publicly commenting on pending cases and that require judges to act in a way that promotes public confidence in the court’s “integrity and impartiality.”
The commission, the state body that has the power to discipline sitting judges, noted McLaughlin fully cooperated with its investigation.
It’s the second such reprimand for the district court judge, who in 2015 was admonished by the commission for making inappropriate comments from the bench to numerous defendants that were "unnecessary, undignified and inconsistent with the presumption of innocence."
She was elected to the bench in 2010 and secured re-election in 2014. She is in the final year of her term and did not seek re-election. McLaughlin was ranked lowest in general satisfaction in 2014 and 2016 Louisville Bar Association evaluations of district court judges, as voted by attorneys in Jefferson County.
Made up of judges, a Kentucky Bar Association member and two citizen representatives, the commission can issue private reprimands all the way up to removal from the bench.
Just last month, the commission issued another reprimand of a Jefferson County judge.
The commission found that Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Charles Cunningham violated parts of the state’s judicial code when he communicated with defendant Joseph Cambron’s attorney multiple times and issued orders without informing prosecutors.
One-sided communication by a judge is allowed in only limited circumstances, as it goes against basic court procedure in which both prosecution and defense are present and can be heard.
Cambron, facing charges of murder and tampering with evidence, is accused of fatally stabbing 12-year-old Ray Etheridge in Cherokee Park in 2014.
His public defenders, seeking records from different agencies, asked Cunningham to issue an order directing the release of records.
But the requests over the course of 13 months were made orally — not in a written motion — and without the knowledge of prosecutors in the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office.
Cunningham granted the defense’s requests, sealing the orders.
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Prosecutors took the matter to the Kentucky Court of Appeals after Cunningham denied their motion to unseal the orders. They argued the one-sided, or ex parte, orders left them in the dark and was the improper route to get records.
In the appeals case, the defense reasoned the judge’s orders helped obtain records necessary to prepare for trial and mount a defense, all while not revealing a potential trial strategy.
Cunningham, in his explanation, said he issued the orders to expedite the receipt of records that were being denied to the defense.
The court found that Cunningham erred in his judgement, saying there was no evidence Cambron's attorneys had been denied records and that there were other options for getting the records that the defense attorneys did not attempt.
Cunningham self-reported to the commission following the Court of Appeals’ decision, according to the reprimand issued late last month.
That commission found that the judge violated multiple canons of the judicial code of conduct, including those dealing with maintaining high standards of integrity and conduct and use of ex parte orders.
Cunningham was appointed to the bench in 2008 and secured an eight-year term in 2014. In a 2017 evaluation by the Louisville Bar Association, he ranked highest in general satisfaction among circuit court judges.
The criminal case against Cambron, which was paused during the Court of Appeals matter, is now scheduled for an April 2019 trial. Cunningham remains on the case, a decision supported by both the prosecution and defense.
This article is provided via the Kentucky Press News Service.