California prison inmates don't get many reasons to smile. The beds aren't Posturepedic. The food is bland and starchy. TV channels are limited. Ventilation is poor. Neighbors have unsatisfied sexual needs.
Nevertheless, a smile must have formed late last month on Maron Jaime Castillo's face. Why? A miracle had occurred. The same person who'd sent the 27-year-old to prison from a Newport Beach courtroom may have also secured his release.
Superior Court Judge Susanne S. Shaw didn't mean to help Castillo. In fact, if it were up to her, he'd still be locked in a cell. After all, a jury found Castillo guilty of assault with a handgun and narcotics violations. Shaw, who retired last September after Castillo's trial, ordered a six-year prison sentence.
But on April 25, the Santa Ana-based state Court of Appeal reversed Castillo's conviction, tossed out the prison sentence and slammed the judge for egregious misconduct against the defense. Shaw's behavior took 18 pages for the justices to recount. Barring a state Supreme Court reversal, Castillo could be out of prison within two months.
“The cumulative impact of the court's conduct resulted in an unfair trial,” concluded justices Richard M. Aronson, William W. Bedsworth and Eileen C. Moore.
Castillo's story began on Sept. 8, 2004, when he and a friend encountered another group in an Aliso Viejo apartment complex parking lot. Mad-dogging ensued, and then a testosterone volley of “What?” A punch ignited a messy brawl. Castillo's arm was fractured as more would-be assailants arrived to fight.
“You want some?” Castillo allegedly yelled as he reached into his pants, pulled out a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and fired two or three shots, according to varying witness reports.
Nobody was hit. A bystander called 911. Sheriff's Deputy William Torrez arrested Castillo. Prosecutors charged him with three counts of attempted murder and possession of a controlled substance, methamphetamine.
Castillo claimed he fired the gun above the heads of his approaching attackers as self-defense warning shots. Indeed, an Orange County Sheriff's Department crime-lab scientist testified that the bullets sailed three or four feet over the approaching group.
A jury acquitted Castillo of attempted murder and instead decided he'd committed the lesser charge of aggravated assault and drug possession. Deputies hauled him away in handcuffs. Later, appellate defense attorney William J. Kopeny filed an appeal citing Shaw's misconduct and ineffective trial counsel by Robert A. Curtis.
The court transcript shows that Shaw—a former Orange County prosecutor—prevented a key witness from answering Curtis' questions, answered questions herself in front of the jury, belittled the defense and repeatedly made incorrect rulings on simple legal matters.
Curtis' objections about Shaw's badgering and blunders led to this exchange during the trial:
Shaw: Who makes the rulings here in court?
Curtis: That is your sole role and responsibility, your Honor.
Thank you. And what is your role when I make a ruling?
To try to get a . . .
No, no, what is your role when I make a ruling? To abide by it, right?
Are you expecting a response from me?
Okay, I object to the court being a co-prosecutor in this case.
I think it's very difficult for my client to get a fair trial if the court is going to constantly interrupt cross-examination.
I'm about to see if I'm going to hold you in contempt. So what is your role?
Frankly, that's not going to intimidate me in the performance of . . . [interrupted]
I'm not trying to intimidate you. . . . I want to know whether you are going to abide by my rulings or not?
The appeals court slammed Shaw for her strong-arm tactics and also for creating “the unmistakable impression she had allied herself with the prosecution” during Curtis' cross-examination of two key witnesses to the shooting.
Officials in the California attorney general's office came to Shaw's defense. They admitted her conduct had been “ill advised.” But, they argued, the errors did not harm Castillo's right to a fair trial.
The justices agreed with Kopeny. “Due process requires judges to protect the defendant's right to a fair and impartial trial by conducting the proceedings without bias,” they said.
Shaw has a long, embarrassing history with the appeals court. In a single ruling last year, the justices used the following words to describe her: imperious, caustic, condescending, disrespectful, demeaning and sarcastic. Her legal rulings? The justices called them: baffling, flawed, inexplicable, unjustified, unacceptable, unfair, unwarranted, wholly uncalled-for, inappropriate, improper, wrong, inconsistent, prejudicial, erroneous and indefensible.
In the past five years of Shaw's two-decade career on the bench, the appellate justices overturned verdicts in her court a staggering 19 times. California's Commission on Judicial Performance admonished her in 2000 for, among a laundry list of outrages, singing during a trial and telling a “skinny white defendant” that he was going to be ass-raped in prison.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.