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The D.C. Public Defender Service has accused D.C. Superior Court Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin of judicial bias because of her comments about El Salvador in a sexual abuse case, which is scheduled for oral arguments Nov. 17 before the D.C. Court of Appeals. After a three-day bench trial in April 2004, Mitchell-Rankin convicted Rodrigo Mejia, a legal immigrant from El Salvador, of one count of misdemeanor sexual abuse and acquitted him of a second count on charges he had fondled the breasts of his niece when she was 9 years old and again when she was 12. After rendering her verdict, Mitchell-Rankin said from the bench that she knew that “in countries like El Salvador,” there are “very young girls who are 12 and 13, 14 and 15 who are married of black descent.” She added, according to a transcript included in a PDS appellate brief: “I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s cultural in general, that all people feel this way. But I have not been real clear about the issue of sexualizing young girls at a very early age and whether or not any of that is happening and whether or not that’s part and parcel of, of what was going on here.” Mitchell-Rankin sentenced Mejia to 60 days in jail and five years of supervised probation. In his appeal brief, PDS staff attorney Lee Goebes asks that Mejia’s conviction be reversed and a new trial ordered before a different judge. Mitchell-Rankin “displayed an actual or apparent bias against Mejia due to his national origin” because her verdict “actually or apparently relied upon her extra-judicially obtained and constitutionally suspect understanding of an El Salvadoran �cultural issue,’ ” the brief states. The U.S. Attorney’s Office counters that Mitchell-Rankin “merely raised questions about behavioral norms in El Salvador” and did not show any bias in her verdict, which included an acquittal on one of the two counts. “Reversing the conviction to correct an unfortunate choice of words would be overkill,” the prosecutor’s brief states.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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