Murder conviction reversed where trial court cast aspersions on plumbers as witnesses and defendant’s sole alibi witness was a plumber. Potential jurors empaneled to hear Tatum’s trial on charges of first degree murder and premeditated attempted murder were instructed on how to judge the credibility of witnesses. The court told them not to prejudge anybody, but then stated it had bad experiences in the past with plumbers and therefore, when a witness comes in who is a plumber, the court thinks “God, he’s not going to be telling the truth.” Although the court cited this as an example of how one should not prejudge a witness, Tatum moved for a mistrial because his sole alibi witness was a plumbing contractor. The court denied the motion but asked if the defense wanted it to give an instruction regarding the plumber. The defense declined. Tatum was convicted and appealed. Held: Reversed. A trial court may comment on the evidence, including the credibility of witnesses, but its statements must be accurate and scrupulously fair. The jury is the arbiter of questions of fact and the credibility of witnesses, but is likely to place undue reliance on the judge’s opinion of how to resolve factual issues. Here, the witness’ credibility was crucial; the prosecution questioned his credibility and argued in closing that the witness lied. The court’s comments regarding plumbers irreparably damaged Tatum’s chances of receiving a fair trial. The trial court abused its discretion by denying the mistrial motion.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B258517.PDF