Asleep on the bench

1. International War Crimes Tribunal, The Hague

In 2001, at the International War Crimes Tribunal, The Hague, three men were convicted of numerous counts of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, appealed against their conviction. Their crime involved harm to Bosnian Serb detainees in the Celebici camp where they served as officials. Presiding judge, Judge Karibi-Whyte, had been asleep during substantial parts of the trial (emphasis added). As a result, the three accused believed they did not undergo a fair trial. Video evidence apparently showed the judge having regular sleep episodes usually up to 10 seconds long, sometimes up to 30 seconds with snoring. On one occasion, the judge was asleep for 30 minutes. The Appeals Chamber did comment that the judge’s conduct was not regarded as appropriate for a judge but still rejected the ground of appeal. Karibi-Whyte’s term as judge on the tribunal was not renewed, and he returned to Nigeria after the verdict, although it is unclear whether this was related to his somnolence during the trial.

2. Ontario Superior Court, Canada

In 2003, an Ontario man had been convicted of mischief and criminal harassment in 2001, was granted a new trial after an appeal court heard that the judge, Justice Ayres Cuoto, had fallen asleep during the cross examination of the accused. Deak’s trial lawyer, Kim Schofield, had accused Justice Cuoto of dozing off during trial and decided to drop a 2,136 page copy of the Criminal Code onto the judge’s desk to get his attention. “His Honour was visibly stirred from his slumber,” commented Schofield. The Appeals Court held that Cuoto’s ability to witness the demeanor of a key witness may have been impaired.

3. Indiana Court of Appeals

In 2004, the Indiana Court of Appeals, Ronald Lampitok appealed against his conviction for carjacking on multiple grounds. One of the grounds was that the presiding judge appeared to have fallen asleep during the defense counsel’s closing argument, and this would have influenced the jury that his attorney’s argument “were not worthy of attention.” The Appeals Court found no direct evidence of the judge falling asleep, except for one exchange with the defense counsel during which the counsel asked the judge “Am I boring you today, Your Honor?” The judge replied “No, just resting my glaucoma eyes.” They also failed to note any evidence that the jury was aware of the fall-asleep episode or that Lampitok had raised this issue during the trial. The Court raised the precedent of United States versus White 849 F.2d 1283 1289 (5th Circuit, 1979) in which a mistrial was not called despite the presiding judge having fallen asleep during the defense counsel’s opening statement because there was no evidence of prejudice to the defendant’s case.

4. Court of Appeal, London, United Kingdom

In 2004, Judge Michael Coombe was alleged to have missed vital evidence after falling asleep during a court hearing describing the failed robbery of diamonds from the London’s Millennium Dome. Four men had conspired to rob at least £200 million worth of diamonds. The four men were convicted in February 2002 and sentenced by Judge Coombe to up to 18 years in prison. The defense lawyer, Edmund Romilly, claimed that vital evidence may have been missed and that lesser sentences may have been handed out because the jury may have assumed from the judge’s sleepiness that he was uninterested in the defense case. Romilly insisted: “Snoring adds another feature, in that it makes the conduct more blatant. Anyone can be forgiven for momentary lapses of concentration, but it is another matter if there is sleepfulness accompanied by noises associated with sleep, drawing attention to the person who is asleep and deflecting the jury’s attention.”

Local journalist Miss Tamsen Vian-Courtenay commented that Judge Coombe’s “head fell so far forward as to be almost touching the table,” with sounds that she thought were snoring and that the judge “seemed to wake up with a start.”

Judge Coombe retired shortly after the case concluded.

5. The New York Appellate Division, 1st Department

Justice James Leff of New York convicted David Degondea for the murder of a police officer in 1993. He was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison, and his conviction was affirmed on appeal. Some years later, Degondea appealed again on the grounds that Leff (by then deceased) had fallen asleep during jury selection and a biased juror was allowed to serve on the jury. In 2002, New York Supreme Court Judge Marcy L. Kahn reversed Degondea’s conviction, finding that Judge Leff had been “inattentive,” if not actually asleep, during jury selection. The prosecution then appealed Judge Kahn’s ruling. The New York Appellate Division, 1st Department (5 judges presiding) decided that Degondea should not receive a new trial, even if Judge Leff had been asleep at times while the jury was selected.

6. Supreme Court of Arizona

A Justice of the Peace in Arizona, Mr. John Carpenter, was noted to have sleepiness during court proceedings in 1999. He had been elected in 1998 and took office in 1999. A Phoenix newspaper published an article detailing some of these sleep episodes, and, eventually, Mr. Carpenter admitted he had been suffering from narcolepsy, a condition he did not disclose when applying for the post of Justice of the Peace. He suggested in response that his courtroom should be staffed with a bailiff to assist him. Later in 2000, formal proceedings against Mr. Carpenter were filed in the Disciplinary Commission for the Supreme Court in Arizona on the basis of multiple complaints, and Mr. Carpenter was then removed from office. It was felt his diagnosis of narcolepsy was a “minimal mitigation” for his behavior, which also included inappropriate comments in court, including sexual and racist jokes.

7. Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission

Pinellas County Florida Circuit Court Judge Brandt Downey was reported to be sleeping during a murder trial and had a formal complaint lodged against him by the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission. The defendant’s attorney petitioned for a new trial. The veracity of this report is still not proven, as it may have been misinterpretation by the media of the claim that Downey had ignored jurors’ complaints about a fellow juror being asleep during trial proceedings. Downey agreed to step down following admissions related to other instances of misconduct.

8. Supreme Court of Louisiana

In 2006, Shreveport, Louisiana, Judge LeLeshia Alford was suspended following allegations of falling asleep at the bench due to use of pain-relieving medications. The Supreme Court of Louisiana, acting on a recommendation by the state Judiciary Commission, ordered her off the bench while it considers additional disciplinary action that could include further suspension or removal.

9. New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct

In November 2005, a child advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct against Suffolk County ( New York) Criminal Court Judge Gary Weber. They claimed that the judge slept through the testimony of a 15-year-old girl before acquitting her mother’s boyfriend of raping her. The letter of complaint stated that the judge “fell asleep” intermittently” during the girl’s testimony. The girl said that she watched Weber fall asleep while she testified during the trial last November in Riverhead. “His head was on his hands, his elbow on the table, he was asleep, he was asleep,” she said. Weber denied having fallen asleep.

10. New Hampshire. Judicial Conduct Committee

In 2005, a subcommittee of the New Hampshire Judicial Conduct Committee was reported to be investigating at least 5 complaints alleging Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Patricia Coffey slept on the bench. The subcommittee had to be formed because Coffey is a member of the Judicial Conduct Committee. The original complaint came from the wife of Donald Spinner, whom Coffey had sentenced to a prison term of 23 to 46 years for sexually assaulting his stepdaughter. Coffey was alleged to have fallen asleep on multiple occasions during this trial, and at least 2 of the 13 jurors polled by the Public Defender’s Office reported having seen the judge doze off during the trial. Spinner also alleged that his public defender knew that Coffey slept and had advised it was “neither a cause for alarm nor an uncommon occurrence.” Spinner’s motion contended that Coffey’s “somnolence” violated his right to a fair trial, whereas his public defender’s “conduct constituted ineffective assistance of counsel.” After this complaint, other complaints with similar allegations were made against Coffey, including a letter written to a local newspaper several years before Spinner’s case and from a local state representative who had seen the judge sleep on the bench on several occasions.

Coffey accepted the recommendation to be examined by a “qualified medical specialist” within 30 days to allow that doctor to inform the panel “of any specific clinical diagnosis,” and to comply with any recommended treatment. Coffey also agreed to be subject to random monitoring, as recommended by the Chief Justice of the Superior Court for 1 year, with the monitoring to be conducted on a random basis and without prior notification.

11. US Supreme Court

In March 2006, US Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was reported by Associated Press to have fallen asleep for about 15 minutes during oral argument in the Court’s review of a controversial Texas redistricting plan directed by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, in 2003. Ginsburg apparently had difficulty staying tuned into the details of the hearing: They reported that “the subject matter was extremely technical, and near the end of the argument Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dozed in her chair. Justices Souter and Samuel Alito, who flanked the 72-year-old, looked at her but did not give her a nudge.” The Court’s sketch artist drew a humorous picture of the hearing, featuring Ginsburg with her forehead planted firmly on the bar in front of her seat.

There was a resultant flurry of reports mainly in conservative media outlets not favorable to Ginsburg. Fox News Channel reporter Megyn Kendall highlighted Ginsburg’s “Supreme” napping ability during a segment on “Special Report with Brit Hume.” “It is one of the biggest redistricting cases the high court has heard in years,” explained Kendall. “But the special two-hour argument proved less than compelling to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who at times appeared to be well asleep.” Mark Baden, a Republican lawyer told The Associated Press that the case could determine the outcome of the upcoming midterm elections. “It’s conceivable,” said Baden “that this case could swing control of the House of Representatives in November.” Conservative columnist, Joseph Farah named the judge “Snoozeburg,” suggesting that she should resign from the court so “she can take as many midday naps as she likes.”

12. United States Court of Appeals 10th Circuit

In 2002, Salvador Martinez appealed to the United States Court of Appeals 10th Circuit against his conviction for methamphetamine trafficking. One of his grounds of appeal was that the trial judge had fallen asleep during cross-examination of the lead witness for the prosecution by defense counsel. Both prosecution and defense counsel had noticed the episode of sleep and requested an “in camera” session with the judge and, after some discussion, agreed that there was nothing meriting a mistrial. Martinez was convicted, and the judge died suddenly after the trial but before sentencing. Martinez’s appeal was based on his view that the act of the judge falling asleep had “disparaged” the defendant’s cross-examination of the lead witness. The Appeals Court disallowed this appeal, stating “We are not persuaded.” In U.S. versus Yanez-Baldenegro, Nos. 93-10538, 93-10542, 1994 WL 441757, at **3 (9th Cir. August 15, 1994), the Ninth Circuit held that the fact that the trial judge fell asleep during defense counsel’s closing argument did not dictate a reversal, stating that “[a] federal judge has broad discretion in supervising trials, and his or her behavior during trial justifies reversal only if it abuses that discretion.”

13. Kane County Court, Illinois

In March 2006, John Markiewicz, convicted of murder, appealed against the conduct of John Doyle, presiding judge of the Kane County Drug Rehabilitation Court, at his resentencing hearing. He alleged that Doyle had fallen asleep during a statement made by the defendant.

14. Court of Queens bench, Alberta

In 2004, an Alberta judge, John Moore, admitted having fallen asleep during a sentencing hearing for convicted drug dealer, Mr. Nicholas Chan. The defense lawyer claimed that, when he stopped speaking, he could hear Judge Moore snoring. Judge Moore has publicly apologized to the lawyers involved in the case and was referred to a sleep physician for further investigations. A new sentencing hearing was ordered under a new judge.

Reference: Asleep on the Bench. The Case of Judge Nodd and other Sleeping Judges.

Grunstein et al SLEEP, Vol. 30, No. 5, 2006

Note: Citations were shortened for space reasons.