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Eleventh Circuit Grants Habeas Hearing in Judicial Bias Case

By Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has reversed a district court and ruled that an evidentiary hearing is required when a criminal defendant has sufficiently alleged actual bias on the part of a trial judge.

Harrison Norris, Jr., who is black, was convicted of 24 counts of forced prostitution of several women, who are white. District Court Judge Jack Camp, who is white, sentenced Norris to life imprisonment.

Three years after Norris' trial, Judge Camp pleaded guilty to several controlled substance and theft offenses. During the investigation of Camp, it was determined that he injured his brain in a bicycle accident in 2000, and had since suffered from bipolar disorder. A letter from the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia to the Federal Defender Program detailed these findings.

The letter also detailed witness statements that alleged that Camp harbored deep-seated racial bias.

Norris filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 habeas corpus action, alleging that his conviction violated the Due Process Clause because of Judge Camp's racial bias. In his petition, he alleged that Judge Camp was specifically biased against him, noting a witness statement that Camp "wanted to give all black men who pimped white women the maximum penalty" and specifically disliked Norris.

The district court determined that the alleged bias in this situation was a "trial error, not a structural defect." Reviewing the trial transcript, the district court found that Judge Camp was fair when dealing with Norris, and thus denied relief without an evidentiary hearing.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed, finding Judge Camp's alleged personal bias against Norris to be a structural defect. As such, regardless of the evidence against him or the outcome of the case, a new trial was necessary. The court did not order a new trial, however; it instead remanded to the district court for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Judge Camp was actually biased against Norris.

Case: Norris v. United States, United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Case No. 15-10390 (April 25, 2016).

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