Judge accused of misconduct in Oakland murder case; prosecutor accused of judicial shakedown

OAKLAND — An Alameda County judge has been hit with allegations that he added 15 years to a prison sentence because he was angry with a defense attorney, and that he was unduly influenced by a prosecutor who threatened political retaliation.

The allegations — made via sworn declarations by two attorneys and an investigator with the Alameda County Public Defender’s office — quote a courtroom clerk who the accusers say confided in them that Judge Andrew Steckler said he would add an extra 15 years to a murder defendant’s prison term in retaliation for three post-trial defense motions.

They said the same judge had previously been visited by a high-ranking member of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, assistant DA David Stein, who accused Steckler of “sandbagging” prosecutors and told Steckler that he and Alameda County DA Nancy O’Malley had “been thinking of moving you to civil (court).”

The declarations were signed under penalty of perjury by deputy public defenders Joseph Penrod and Sachiel Slavin, as well as investigator Danine Drew.

The allegations center on the fate of Marius Robinson, an Oakland resident who was convicted of murdering 43-year-pld Robert Ellis Coleman in a 2020 shooting, and sentenced to 60 years to life last November. Robinson’s attorney, Penrod, is seeking a new trial based on conversations with Steckler’s clerk.

Stein responded in kind Thursday with his own sworn declaration, in which he admitted to having a private conversation with Steckler, but explicitly denied trying to shakedown the judge for more favorable rulings. O’Malley too signed a declaration stating she never talked with Stein about moving Steckler to civil court and that she lacked the power to do so.

The DA’s office referred to Stein and O’Malley’s sworn statements when asked for request for comment.

Steckler declined to comment through a courtroom staffer, citing judicial guidelines that bar him from commenting on pending matters. In a written minute order Thursday, Steckler recused himself from further decision making in Robinson’s case, though he denied accusations that he added 15 years to Robinson’s sentence because of a grudge against Penrod.

“The Court does not agree with the characterizations and confirms that it did not arrive at a sentence for any reason other than those stated at length during the sentencing hearing in open court and on the record,” Steckler wrote in court papers.

Steckler spent 21 years with the public defender’s office before then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him as an Alameda County Superior Court judge in 2015.

Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods, said in an interview with this newspaper he “absolutely” believes the allegations against Steckler.

“We expect those in power, like judges, to be able to do what is right to follow the law, and to be courageous,” Woods said. “The only person who is courageous in this case and has most integrity was the courtroom clerk. If it wasn’t for her, this would have never come to light, so I think she needs to be commended for her bravery.”

The accusations could carry serious consequences if proven true: Similar misconduct allegations have brought down other judges, including Contra Costa Judge Bruce Mills, who was kicked off the bench in 2018 for illegally increasing a man’s sentence from 12 days to 25. Mills retired while misconduct allegations against him were pending.

Penrod’s motion says that last year, after Robinson was sentenced, Steckler’s clerk informed him she’d overheard Stein pressure Steckler to rule in favor of prosecutors in future hearings. According to Penrod, she also said Steckler told her before Robinson’s sentencing, he had planned to give him 45 years to life, but had changed his mind, and would five years for each of three motions Penrod filed seeking a post-conviction dismissal or a new trial.

In his declaration, Stein says he visited Steckler to talk about allegations of prosecutorial misconduct the public defender’s office was leveling against county prosecutors, unrelated to the Robinson case. He said he asked Steckler to inform him any time he thought a prosecutor was being unethical so it could be “dealt with.” Stein said the term “sandbagging” did come up, but only in the context of discussing how a defense lawyer had used that term in a recent trial.

“I told Judge Steckler to be clear, I was not there to complain about any of his rulings on motions/objections,” Stein wrote. “I told him that such rulings were equivalent to ‘calling balls and strikes’ and that from my perspective, ‘you win some, you lose some.'”

Prosecutors also questioned why defense attorneys were quoting Steckler’s clerk, rather than seeking a statement from her directly, and that no judge should consider sworn statements that amount to inaccurate “hearsay.”

Lara Bazelon, a professor with the University of San Francisco School of Law, said that while prosecutors obviously don’t have the power to reassign judges, they can flood a particular judge with disqualification motions on virtually every case they hear, which can essentially force the judge to be transferred.

“If an office does it, office-wide, then the judge has no cases and the judge will get re-assigned,” Bazelon said. “That’s a power that the prosecutors and the public defenders have.”

The allegations against the DA’s office are the latest in what has been a tumultuous year for Alameda County prosecutors and public defenders, who publicly traded barbs last year over prosecutorial misconduct allegations.

Last year, another deputy district attorney attempted to recuse the entire DA’s office from the murder trial of Shawn Martin, arguing that misconduct was rampant in the office. O’Malley responded by ordering her attorneys to stop having informal plea deal discussions with public defenders outside of courtrooms, but walked the order back after Woods wrote her a letter quoting an appellate court hearing that says prosecutors can’t limit the time and place of such discussions. A judge ruled against the defense motion, but Martin was later acquitted.

For his part, on the day he was sentenced, Robinson adamantly denied having anything to do with Coleman’s murder. Jurors convicted him of searching for Coleman and brutally gunning him down, hours after Coleman insulted Robinson’s wife during an argument at an Oakland store.

“I promise you justice has not been served,” Robinson said before Steckler handed down the sentence.

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