PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia judge's clash with the late actor Charlton Heston has indirectly led a U.S. appeals court to overturn a murder conviction.
The victim's family had created a blog during the 1998 trial that quoted Heston, of "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" fame, calling Judge Lisa Richette soft on crime. Heston had called her by the nickname "Let 'em Loose Lisa" during a National Rifle Association speech that year in Philadelphia.
The blog prompted Richette to call the victim's family to her chambers, with the prosecutor and defence lawyer but not the defendant on hand. She suggested that victim Mark Gibson's family had slandered her, but then assured them she would try the case fairly.
She ultimately found defendant Paul McKernan guilty of first-degree murder and sent him to prison for life. McKernan had claimed self- defence in the baseball bat death.
In appeals over two decades, he argued that Richette had bent over backward to appease the Gibson family.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court last week called the late judge's back-room conversation inappropriate and found the defence lawyer ineffective.
"Judge Richette's actions would have caused any competent attorney to seek recusal immediately," Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth wrote in a unanimous three-judge opinion.
Defence lawyer W. Fred Harrison Jr. did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday.
McKernan, after serving 20 years in prison, will be released unless the Philadelphia District Attorney decides to retry him. The case remains under review, a district attorney's spokesman said.
"Our client is relieved that that the court after nearly 20 years recognizes that he did not receive a fair trial," lawyer Maria Pulzetti of the Federal Community Defender Office, who handled the appeal, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Richette, who was considered flamboyant, a bit eccentric and something of a bleeding heart, died in 2007. She had attended Yale Law School and was the author of a well-regarded 1969 book on the juvenile justice system called "The Throwaway Children."
Maryclaire Dale, The Associated Press