CHICAGO (AP) — A federal judge in two of Illinois’ highest profile cases has been removed from hearing all his criminal cases after it was revealed he exchanged emails with an employee at the U.S. attorney’s office in which he commented on and joked about one of his trials in progress at the time.
Some legal experts said Tuesday the matter could lead to a review of hundreds of cases to see if Judge Colin Bruce had sent out similarly inappropriate emails during trials before, a review process that could create trial delays and logjams at the U.S. District for Court for central Illinois.
“It is an understatement to say that this is outrageous,” said Phil Turner, a defense attorney in Chicago and a former federal prosecutor in northern Illinois with no cases before Bruce. “It’s extremely unusual and way beyond the pale.”
The Urbana-based Bruce had been presiding over ex-U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock’s corruption case and the case of Brendt Christensen, accused in the 2017 kidnapping and slaying of Yingying Zhang, a Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois. Neither case has yet gone to trial.
Schock, a Peoria Republican, resigned in 2015 and was indicted on allegations of misusing funds in 2016. The 37-year-old has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Christensen, saying he tortured Zhang, 26, before killing her.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge James Shadid said in a one-sentence statement Tuesday that he had “temporarily reassigned” all of Bruce’s cases in which federal prosecutors are a party. He didn’t say why.
Bruce’s emails to a paralegal at Springfield’s U.S. attorney’s office came to light last week in a motion for a new trial by Sarah Nixon, convicted in December 2016 of international parental kidnapping. She was sentenced last year to just over two years in prison. The U.S. attorney’s office disclosed the emails to the defense in May, saying it had only recently become aware of them, according to Nixon’s motion.
In one Dec. 17, 2016, email Bruce sent before Nixon’s trial had ended, he said sarcastically that a prosecutor had done “a WONDERFUL job of repeating the bull---- the defendant said as if the defendant’s story was all fact.”
“This trial went from slam-dunk for the prosecution to about 60-40 for the defendant,” he wrote. A Dec. 18 email added: “I really cringed when the inexperienced DOJ attorney started (cross-examining) the defendant.”
Turner said Bruce’s comments, if conveyed to the trial prosecutors, could have helped them adjust how they questioned witnesses.
Bruce’s office declined any comment Tuesday, as did prosecutors.
But in a filing last week following Nixon’s motion for a new trial, Bruce recused himself and defended his emails to someone he described as a longtime friend. He said the point of the emails was to explain why he hadn’t attended a retirement party for an outgoing U.S. attorney.
“At the time it was sent, and now, I consider the email exchange to be innocuous and merely a private email conversation with someone entirely uninvolved in this case,” he wrote.
Turner said he expected many defense attorneys whose clients were convicted in cases heard by Bruce to ask for an investigation, which he said would include examining the judge’s email archives.
The temporary reassignment of Bruce’s cases, he said, could easily end up becoming permanent, saying an argument could be made that the judge should be booted from the bench entirely.