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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

No Get Out of Jail Free Card. William McMahon was on trial for kidnaping in the second degree, unlawful imprisonment in the first degree, attempted rape in the first degree and assault in the second degree. His brother-in-law had already been tried for participating in the same crimes. The judge at the first trial was to try McMahon's case as well. During plea negotiations, he told the defendant that the prosecutor's offer was very fair in light of the evidence he had heard at the first trial.

The defense counsel asked the judge to recuse himself. The judge refused. The judge offered to transfer the case if the defendant would waive his right to a jury trial. McMahon agreed, and the case was tried before a second judge, who convicted him.

On appeal, he argued, among other things, that his waiver of his right to a jury trial had been coerced. The Appellate Division affirmed his conviction, although it dismissed one of the charges. The New York State Court of Appeals declined to hear the case.

McMahon brought a habeas proceeding in federal court, arguing that the first judge had been biased (evidently arguing that the judge's refusal to recuse himself was error) and that he had been coerced to waive his right to a jury trial. The District Court held that the first judge was not required to recuse himself, but granted the petition because the offere to transfer the case to another judge on the condition that McMahon agree to a bench trial was coercive.

The Second Circuit agreed that the judge did not err in refusing to recuse himself, but held that the waiver of the right to a jury trial was not coerced. The Court noted that state court judges, unlike federal court judges, are permitted to participate in plea negotiations and may discuss the sentencing repercussions of a defendant's choice to go to trial rather than plead guilty. The fact that the judge had some opinion on the case based on evidence he heard in the prior case was not sufficient basis for a bias motion. Hence, McMahon had no right to have a trial that was not presided over by the first judge.

The Court noted that a criminal defendant may bargain away his or her right to a jury trial in exchange for other benefits that would not otherwise be available to him. McMahon did not want to be tried before the first judge. He made a reasoned decision to waive his right so that he could be tried before a different judge. The Court held that there was no coersion.

The decision in McMahon v. Hodges can be found here.

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