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Retired judge overturned based on bias shown on bench

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The Indiana Supreme Court has ordered a new trial for a convicted child molester because of the conduct from the longtime trial judge, who resigned from the bench in September amid a judicial misconduct investigation.

Justices issued a decision Thursday afternoon in the case of Steven W. Everling v. State of Indiana, No. 48S05-0911-CR-506, reversing the child molesting convictions and 110-year sentence imposed by now-retired Madison Circuit Judge Fredrick R. Spencer. The court described the former judge as being biased against the defendant by barring several defense witnesses during the 2008 trial, helping prosecutors with objections in court, and by repeatedly disparaging and criticizing the man’s Anderson attorney who had previously filed a judicial misconduct complaint against him.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard says the record showed “a lack of impartiality,” and he wrote that “the cumulative result of Judge Spencer’s comments, exclusions, and general demeanor toward the defense was a trial below the standard towards which Indiana strives.”

Remanding the case for a new trial, the justices noted this wasn’t the first time Judge Spencer had displayed this kind of behavior on the bench.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first case in which Judge Spencer made inappropriate declarations in a criminal trial,” the chief justice wrote, citing Abernathy v. State, 524 N.E. 2d 12 (Ind. 1988) where the judge had made comments showing bias and impartiality and the justices reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Before stepping down Sept. 25 following a 26-year career on the bench, Judge Spencer had faced a judicial ethics commission investigation into his conduct related to the 2007 murder trial of State v. Ward, No. 48C01-0612-MR-00480, in which Kathy Jo Ward was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of her husband while he slept. Some public details included allegations that Judge Spencer initiated ex parte communications concerning matters pending in the court, decided issues prematurely and on the basis of improper considerations, and attempted to deprive a person of her constitutional right to appeal and her statutory right to seek modification of her sentence.

That had been the fifth time in 12 years that Judge Spencer faced a judicial misconduct investigation and received a sanction as a result.

As a result of his resignation last year, the ruling doesn’t mention and there’s no likely disciplinary action that will follow in this case.
 

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