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Meek Mill’s New Legal Gambit May Help Get New Judge, Trial

June 20, 2018, 9:08 PM

Will convicted rapper Meek Mill’s last-minute change in strategy for a June 18 hearing on whether he gets a new trial pay off, even if Judge Genece Brinkley denies his motion? Or will Brinkley’s by-the-book approach ultimately be upheld?

Mill’s allegations about Brinkley’s bias against him may be reaching a crescendo given the “spectacle” that was the hearing, as sole testifying witness Bradley Bridge described it to Bloomberg Law.

Mill—whose real name is Robert Williams—and Brinkley have been at odds ever since Williams accused Brinkley of being biased and asked her to recuse herself from his case.

The case illustrates both sides of the argument regarding judicial bias: A judge who claims she isn’t treating a defendant differently than others and that allegations to the contrary are without merit; and a defendant who feels like he isn’t getting fair treatment.

Sam Stretton, a Philadelphia lawyer who has defended thousands of lawyers and hundreds of judges in disciplinary cases, told Bloomberg Law he is “no great fan of Judge Brinkley,” but he is concerned about the “attack on judicial independence.”

That Brinkley is “declining the invitations and ignoring the signals” from the state supreme court about recusing herself indicates she may “have a dog in this race,” judicial conduct and ethics professor at Indiana University Bloomington Maurer School of Law Charles Geyh told Bloomberg Law. That’s when she needs to “think seriously about stepping down,” he said.

‘Behind the Music’

Williams was convicted of several firearm offenses and a drug offense in 2008, according to court documents. Brinkley convicted and sentenced Williams to 11 ½ to 23 months in the county jail, then 10 years of probation. He served six months in jail and then six months under house arrest.

Over the next six years, Williams had numerous probation violations, ranging from testing positive for opiate use to more technical violations such as traveling without permission, not following his travel schedule, and failing to report to his probation officer. Brinkley allowed him to continue on probation in several instances, but ultimately sentenced him to jail twice.

Williams was then arrested twice in 2017 and, at a November 6, 2017 violation of probation hearing, Brinkley revoked Williams’s probation and sentenced him to two to four years in state prison. Williams appealed, asked to be released on bail, and asked Brinkley to recuse herself from the case.

After Williams’s defense team learned that the arresting officer and sole witness in Williams’s case, Reginald Graham, was identified on a “Do Not Call” list maintained by the district attorney due to concerns about the officer’s credibility, Williams sought a new trial.

The ‘Spectacle’

Williams contended the hearing wasn’t necessary. The prosecution already agreed to a new trial because of Graham’s credibility issues. But Brinkley wanted to hear the evidence before ruling. The prosecutor’s “agreement to a new trial is only a recommendation,” and the “Court must have evidence in the record supporting Defendant’s claims,” she said.

Though the prosecution can certainly agree to a new trial, a judge shouldn’t be criticized for wanting a hearing on the issue, Stretton said.

A limited number of reporters were allowed into the 71-person capacity courtroom. Court personnel told Bloomberg Law that Brinkley opted to remain in her courtroom, as she has done for all Williams’s other hearings. When the hearing started, she made sure reporters didn’t have any cell phones because “the media is not supposed to be using anything but handwriting and note pads.”

Some who witnessed the hearing said it was contentious.

After Brinkley refused to grant a new trial at the outset, Williams’s defense team called Bridge—a public defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia since 1983—to discuss the thousands of cases that convicts have sought to reopen involving allegedly corrupt police officers.

Nearly all of those cases have been transferred to President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper or her predecessor, Bridge said. As far as he knew, only Williams’s case remains pending before another judge. Even the post-conviction case of Nina Harth, who was arrested by Graham along with Williams, has been transferred to Woods-Skipper. Harth’s case is going before Woods-Skipper next week. The case was originally before Brinkley.

Brinkley questioned Bridge for over half an hour, he told Bloomberg Law. Bridge described her examination of him as “hostile and incredulous and dismissive.” He characterized the questions as touching on two issues.

First, he agreed that just because the post-conviction cases involving allegedly corrupt officers have been consolidated to a single judge for 23 years doesn’t mean it’s the right or best way, which he said was the “thrust” of Brinkley’s questions.

Second, Brinkley questioned his basis for filing so many motions—nearly 300 involving Graham, and 6,000 involving other officers on the “Do Not Call” list—seeking post-conviction relief, Bridge said. She seemed troubled that he filed the motions without conducting an independent investigation, such as by speaking with the officers, Bridge said.

Bridge told Brinkley he felt he met the burden of proof needed to get post-conviction relief. That is, “the verdict would have been different with this new information,” Bridge said. “The prosecutor’s determination that they’re not going to call a police offer because of questions about the police officer’s credibility strikes me as easily sufficient to meet that burden,” Bridge told Bloomberg Law.

Here the prosecutor has agreed it “cannot in good conscience maintain this conviction,” Bridge said after the hearing, so the judge doesn’t have “a particular role to play.” The judge has granted relief in all of the roughly 1,500 post-conviction cases where the prosecution agreed there is a basis for it, he said.

The prosecutor recognizes Graham’s lack of credibility makes it inappropriate to maintain a conviction, and the prosecutor is “being thwarted by Judge Brinkley,” Bridge said.

Change of Plans

Williams’s team didn’t originally plan to call any witnesses. Williams’s defense lawyer Jordan Siev told Bloomberg Law the plan was to minimize Brinkley’s ability to make any adverse findings, but particularly adverse credibility findings. Even though Siev said a credibility finding wasn’t relevant for proving Williams should get a new trial, they didn’t want to give Brinkley the opportunity to “grandstand and make credibility determinations” that an appellate court might feel limited in their ability to review.

But on further reflection, Williams’s team decided to call Bridge, whose “record of public service and service to the bar is uncontrovertable” and is a “pillar of the legal community,” Siev said. His “credibility is so unassailable and unimpeachable,” so that her anticipated treatment of him as a witness would highlight the “disparate treatment” to which Williams has been subjected, Siev said.

At one point, defense lawyer Peter Goldberger objected to Brinkley’s treatment of Bridge. The judge was “cross-examining him like he was a liar and laughed in his face,” Goldberger told reporters after the hearing.

Attendees at the hearing told Bloomberg Law that Brinkley laughed at Bridge during his testimony. Bridge told Bloomberg Law after the hearing that he was being “judicious” when he told the judge he thought she was smirking at him. Bridge testified that “there were a couple moments” where he sensed Brinkley was ridiculing him. Siev told Bloomberg Law he recalled Brinkley laughing at Bridge’s testimony about the existence of the “Do Not Call” list being a basis for his motions.

Instead of calling additional witnesses to testify about Graham’s credibility and misconduct, Williams submitted a list of facts that he and the district attorney agreed upon—including that Pennsylvania “does not have confidence in the credibility of Reginald Graham’s testimony in this case,” and that it agreed to a new trial.

Williams and the district attorney also stipulated that another officer disputed Graham’s testimony about Williams’s arrest; that an internal police investigation concluded Graham was guilty of theft while on duty and of lying during the investigation; and that the district attorney had information about Graham’s misconduct as of 2014 but failed to disclose it to Williams until 2018.

The stipulation meets the burden for obtaining post-conviction relief, “and then some,” Bridge told Bloomberg Law. But more than that, it “correct[s] an injustice that occurred.”

After the hearing, Williams’s lawyer Brian J. McMonagle said, “we didn’t get the kind of fairness and impartiality that we had hoped might be possible.”

800 Pound Gorilla

The 800 pound gorilla in the hearing room was Williams’s longstanding allegations that Brinkley’s prior rulings, conduct, and statements reflect a bias against him. The hearing started with Williams’s lawyer, Joe Tacopina, again asking Brinkley to recuse herself and to transfer the case to Woods-Skipper. She declined to address the issue and focused on the post-conviction motion.

Brinkley is “always” concerned about the appearance of impartiality, but won’t “get pushed around,” her lawyer, A. Charles Peruto Jr., told Bloomberg Law. No cases involving police officers whose credibility is now in question have been transferred to another judge where the sentencing judge is still handling criminal cases, he said. Peruto also said Williams can’t “create [his] own conflict” by making accusations and then claiming an appearance of impropriety.

After Brinkley’s second round of questions to Bridge, McMonagle interjected that she was “acting like a prosecutor in this case,” and respectfully asked her to stop. She responded that her job was “to make sure that the record is clear because obviously we know that it’s going to go to another court after here.”

Step Aside, Please

Williams sought recusal due to an alleged “pattern of extrajudicial, personal, and injudicious conduct” based on these incidents:

  • Acting like a prosecutor by “personally revising and greatly expanding” the probation officer’s report and “conducting a hostile examination” of her at the November violation hearing;
  • Making herself a fact witness by visiting the place where Williams was assigned community service; and
  • Offering “inappropriate personal and professional advice” about changing management companies and suggesting he record a version of Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee.”

Brinkley characterized Williams’s arguments as “various untimely and unmeritorious claims of impropriety in an attempt to unfairly judge shop.” She also responded to the merits of various allegations:

  • Denying she asked Williams to remake the Boyz II Men song and that she tried to persuade Williams to change management companies;
  • Pointing out that other judges visit sites where defendants are ordered to perform community service and that she gave Williams full credit for his service; and
  • Denying she made any improper statements.

Geyh said there was “too much of a default in favor” of “affording the trial judge discretion to rule on her own qualification to sit,” which “psychological science and common sense suggests is just a poor idea.” There is “indication after indication” that Brinkley had become “personally invested in this case,” he said, citing her visit to the shelter where Williams performed his community service.

Doing It the Hard Way

Williams filed an emergency motion with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in March seeking bail and Brinkley’s removal from the case. In a rare exercise of its extraordinary jurisdiction, the court granted Williams bail until his post-conviction motion is resolved, but declined to reassign the case to another judge. The court noted however, “that the presiding jurist may opt to remove herself from presiding over this matter.”

Peruto told TMZ that Brinkley didn’t feel that court’s decision repudiated her rulings. Peruto also told Page Six of the New York Post that “Judge Brinkley knows Meek’s case inside and out, and the Supreme Court Justices do not.”

Steven Lubet, legal ethics professor at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, said it is wrong for Brinkley or her lawyer to “disparage the ruling of a higher court,” including Peruto’s comment about the supreme court not knowing Williams’s case like she does.

Joel Frank, the Chairman of Lamb McErlane PC in Philadelphia, who has defended judges against allegations of misconduct, characterized some of the statements made on Brinkley’s behalf to the media as “highly unusual.”

Williams filed another emergency motion with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania June 1 seeking reassignment to Woods-Skipper. The district attorney took no position on the motion.

At an April 16 status hearing, Brinkley had said she would talk to Woods-Skipper, who is hearing similar post-conviction cases involving Graham and other officers, about the case.

Williams said under the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.10, judges can’t make public statements that “might reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness” of a pending matter. Brinkley has said under section (e) of Rule 2.10 of the code of judicial conduct, she is allowed to respond to “allegations in the media or elsewhere concerning the judge’s conduct in a matter.” The accusations were “largely unrelated to the case at hand and instead were simply personal attacks,” she said.

An equally divided court denied the emergency motion June 12. Three justices said Brinkley should have disqualified herself “as her continued involvement has created an appearance of impropriety that tends to undermine public confidence in the judiciary.” Justice David Wecht voted against the motion but would allow Williams to raise it again after his June 18 hearing. One justice didn’t vote.

Counsel for Brinkley told Bloomberg Law it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on her reaction to the hearing. The district attorney’s office would not comment beyond stating it supports a new trial.

The case is Commonwealth v. Williams, Pa. Ct. Com. Pl., No. CP-51-CR-0011614-2007, Hearing 6/18/18.

—With assistance from Leslie Pappas

To contact the reporter on this story: Mindy Rattan in Washington at mrattan@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: S. Ethan Bowers at sbowers@bloomberglaw.com

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