Court Rules Judge Improperly Spoke of Race at Sentencing

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- A convicted cocaine dealer will be re-sentenced after a judge called his girlfriend a "baby mama" and asked whether she belonged to a club of women who date unemployed men.

In the first case of its kind in Wisconsin, the 1st District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Wednesday that former Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joseph R. Wall's comments suggested he improperly considered race when he sentenced Landray M. Harris.

Wall, now a federal prosecutor in Milwaukee, gave Harris two years in prison and three years of extended supervision in August 2007. During the sentencing hearing, the judge asked Harris, who is black, whether he had gotten a job.

When Harris said no, Wall replied "You're kidding."

Harris explained he stayed at home with his 2-year-old daughter while the girl's mother worked and went to college.

"Where do you guys find these women, really, seriously," Wall responded. "I'd say about every fourth man who comes in here unemployed, no education, is with a woman who is working full-time, going to school. Where do you find these women? Is there a club?"

Later, Wall added: "Mr. Harris sits at home, gets high while his baby mama works and goes to school. I swear there's a club where these women get together and congregate."

Harris, now 22, asked for a new sentence. He argued Wall made sarcastic, stereotypical remarks that were racially offensive coming from a white judge.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Kevin E. Martens denied that request, saying the remarks were about Harris' character, not his race.

Appeals Judge Joan F. Kessler wrote the case record doesn't indicate Wall harbored any racial bias toward Harris. But she said the "baby mama," "you guys" and "these women" remarks were troubling because it's a short step to "you people," which is commonly interpreted as an insult.

"These terms could reasonably be understood by an African-American or other observer, or a defendant in Harris' position, to be expressions of racial bias, even though we assume they were not intended to be racially offensive," she wrote. "We conclude that both justice and the appearance of justice require resentencing."

Appeals Judge Kitty Brennan dissented, saying she didn't think Wall's comments could be viewed as remarks on Harris' race.

"Baby mama" doesn't refer to any particular race but is instead a trendy term for a single mother, Brennan said, pointing out it's the title of a movie starring Tina Fey from "Saturday Night Live."

"At worst, the 'baby mama' comment here is an awkward attempt by the trial court to sound hip to a defendant when explaining how his idleness and lack of ambition are negative character traits," Brennan wrote.

The "you guys" remark didn't refer to Harris or race, describing instead the one in four defendants who live with the mothers of their children, do nothing but sell drugs and come before Wall, Brennan said.

Wall and Harris' attorney, Christopher R. Smith, did not immediately return messages for comment. Bill Cosh, a spokesman for the state Justice Department, which typically represents the state in criminal appeals, said the agency was reviewing the decision and would decide whether to petition to the state Supreme Court.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)