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Judge’s awful experience with plumbers leads to a messy situation

October 17, 2016

In giving potential jurors instructions on possible prejudices, LA County Judge Eleanor J. Hunter recounted her negative experience with plumbers in the past, as an example of how prejudice can affect a juror’s preconceived ideas about witnesses. During her speech to the potential jurors in Vincent Tatum’s 2014 murder case, Hunter said she has “had horrible experiences with plumbers … during remodels or whatever, just horrible experiences.”

“If I hear somebody is coming in, and I hear he’s a plumber, I’m thinking, ‘God, he’s not going to be telling the truth”.  After hearing Hunter’s remarks on the first day of jury selection, the defense asked for a mistrial, which the judge denied.

Unfortunately, for both Tatum and, later, Hunter, that story told to jurors in good faith, would prove to have negative ramifications for both parties.

In Tatum’s case, during his murder trial in 2014, a key witness that claimed Tatum was at work during the time of the murder, happened to be a plumber.  A fact that Judge Hunter could not have predicted would come up during the trial.  The prosecution in Tatum’s case alleged that Tatum’s friend and sometimes employer, was lying for his friend to give him an alibi for the murder.  Tatum was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 114 years in jail.

In early October, 2016, a split, three-person panel on the 2nd Court of Appeals threw out Tatum’s conviction ruling that Judge Hunter’s negative comments about plumbers during the jury selection, negatively impacted the 6 jurors on the case that heard both Hunter’s remarks, and convicted Tatum of murder. In addition, the fact that she denied granting a mistrial, during jury selection, was also seen as a reason to overturn the conviction.  According the panel, Hunter’s comments “interfered with [Tatum’s] constitutional right to a jury trial”.

Tatum remains in custody in the California State Prison, waiting to see if California’s Attorney General asks the Supreme Court to review the decision.  If the Supreme Court declines, the LA County District Attorney has the option to retry Tatum.

Read more about this case in the LA Times.

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