The guilty plea and 37-year sentence in a child sex abuse case was reversed and assigned to a new judge after an appeals court held the original trial judge prejudicially participated in plea negotiations.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said when a trial judge comments on hypothetical agreements he would or would not accept, “it crosses over the established line” and puts the judge into the negotiation process.
The panel on Wednesday took the case away from U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco and ordered it reassigned to a new judge.
Kenneth Martin Kyle, an assistant professor of public affairs at California State University in Hayward, pleaded guilty to one court of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. An FBI investigation turned up child porn images linked to Kyle and later found he had molested the infant child in St. Louis for six months with the cooperation of the baby’s mother, the opinion states.
In 2011, Judge White told both sides he intended to eject the first plea deal reached because it was “too lenient.” He said the crime justified life imprisonment. He warned Kyle that he might be acquitted at a trial, but if convicted White would take into account uncharged conduct and all the child pornography that Kyle possessed.
The government prosecutor had agreed to recommend a 30-year sentence.
In a renewed plea effort in 2012, White warned the defense that further expert evidence about an appropriate sentence wouldn’t be much help. “The court’s view is that this man is never going to get out of jail, period,” White said at the time, according to the opinion.
Later in the same hearing, White said his view had changed and he was willing to consider something less than life in prison. But he said he did not like the idea of Kyle being “on the street while this child is alive.”
Ulimately, Kyle agreed to a 33-year to 37-year sentence and White ordered the 37 years.
The appeals court said the rules that apply to accepting guilty pleas are intended to eliminate all judicial pressure from plea discussions.
The 9th joined other circuits to hold that when a judge goes beyond providing reasons for rejecting the agreement and comments on a hypothetical deal “it crosses over the line.”
The panel vacated his plea agreement and sentence and ordered the case reassigned to a new judge and the process to begin again.
The opinion was by Judge Consuelo Marshall, a visiting judge from Los Angeles and joined by Judges Marshal Berzon and Jay Bybee.
Case: U.S. v. Kyle, No. 12-10208