A deputy Yolo County public defender is calling for the removal of the Superior Court judge presiding over her case, claiming the judge is prejudiced against the attorney and the county public defender’s office.
The faceoff between Yolo County Deputy Public Defender Martha Sequeira and Yolo Superior Court Judge Paul K. Richardson, laid out in motions filed by both attorney and judge in recent weeks, has been brewing as trial nears for Sequeira’s client Darnell Dorsey of Sacramento.
Dorsey is accused of fatally assaulting his girlfriend’s young son at her Davis apartment in January 2014. The child, Cameron Morrison, was 19 months old when he died Jan. 25, 2014.
It’s definitely an uphill battle whenever you challenge a judge.
Laurie Levenson, a professor of law and an expert on disqualification issues at Loyola Law School
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Davis police said the boy’s mother hailed an ambulance crew at a coffee kiosk on Olive Drive and Richards Boulevard Jan. 22, 2014, asking for help for her unconscious child. He was taken to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
Davis police began an investigation into possible child abuse, quickly focusing on Dorsey. Cameron died days later at the hospital. Dorsey, then 21, was later arraigned in Yolo Superior Court on suspicion of assault on a child with force likely to produce great bodily injury resulting in death.
Dorsey’s trial was set to begin March 7 in Yolo Superior Court in Woodland before the delay to review the disqualification motion and Richardson’s response. The state chief justice’s office last week assigned Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Scott T. Steffen to review the motions, said state Judicial Council officials.
Sequeira in a February motion claimed her trouble with the Superior Court judge began at a 2015 preliminary hearing in a case involving another client during which law enforcement officers accused the defendant of making threatening gestures to a witness who testified before Richardson.
Sequeira subpoenaed Richardson in July 2015 before her client’s trial to testify on whether he saw the gestures. Richardson hired a lawyer, according to the motion, who moved to quash the subpoena claiming Richardson does not have to testify because he is a judge. Sequeira said she again appeared in Dorsey’s case before Richardson in December.
She requested a delay of Dorsey’s scheduled January trial because a defense medical expert was unavailable to testify. Prosecutors at the December hearing agreed to the delay but Richardson denied the request and ordered trial to proceed, according to Sequeira’s motion.
After another attempt in February to compel Richardson to testify to the alleged gestures at the 2015 preliminary hearing, Richardson again declined to testify, filed another motion to quash the subpoena along with a motion for a protective order and sanctions against Sequeira and the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office, calling the subpoena an “oppressive demand,” according to the defense attorney’s motion.
Sequeira argued that the instances leave doubt that Richardson can fairly judge Dorsey’s case. But Laurie Levenson, a professor of law and an expert on disqualification issues at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says courts are reluctant to disqualify judges.
“It’s definitely an uphill battle whenever you challenge a judge,” Levenson said, adding the judicial system begins with the presumption that a judge can set aside biases and fairly consider the evidence.
Richardson ultimately withdrew the sanctions motion but rejected allegations of bias and said he will not step down. In his response filed March 4, Richardson said he is legally bound to hear all cases assigned to him and argued that, though he denied Sequeira’s request for a continuance of Dorsey’s trial in December, he granted a delay in January.
“An adverse judicial ruling does not provide a ground for disqualification,” Richardson wrote, citing case law.
He also argued that, in the case of the 2015 preliminary hearing, he should not be compelled to testify to acts he did not witness; and that defense attorney Sequeira has several other cases before him and has not alleged bias.
“I know of no reason why I cannot be fair and impartial,” Richardson wrote.