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Defense attorneys were still picking their jaws up from the floor this week after Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California recused herself nearly two years into a high-profile criminal case without answering the question: why? The sudden move — no attorney involved in the case asked that she step aside — could end up altering the direction of a case involving servitude, sex charges and one of Berkeley, Calif.’s biggest real estate barons, Lakireddy Bali Reddy. It could also form the grounds for an appeal. Citing a “conflict of interest,” Armstrong recused herself without elaborating. Her courtroom deputy said she would not comment further. The bombshell has left defense attorneys in the case guarded, with some declining to comment and others choosing their words carefully. It came as Armstrong was expected to make a key ruling in a once smoothly running case that recently hit turbulence. “Instead of an intended ruling we got this order,” said Oakland, Calif., solo Paul Wolf, referring to the one-page recusal. Wolf praised Armstrong but added that more details would help put to rest speculation and “make sure that the integrity of the process has been assured.” Armstrong was considering a motion to quash more than a dozen subpoenas issued by defense attorneys hoping to get more information on the extent to which an interpreter may have unduly influenced the case. Defense lawyers say Uma Rao, a Telugu-speaking interpreter (the defendants and victims are from India) employed by the court, prosecutors and civil lawyers, urged four victims to lie. Two admitted doing so, leading the government to withdraw an allegation against one defendant. Defense attorneys Wolf and George Cotsirilos Jr. were seeking more information about the extent of Rao’s contact and influence on the victims. Rao is in India and could not be reached for comment, but her court-appointed lawyer said she had extensive contact with them. “She was a gal Friday,” said Oakland solo Daniel Horowitz. He characterized his client as a “den mother” who would, among other things, take the victims shopping. “Everybody with an ax to grind hired Uma Rao,” said Horowitz, denying that she urged anyone to lie. Armstrong’s use of the phrase “conflict of interest” raises questions about whether she should have recused herself earlier. She has already sentenced Reddy, the key figure in the scandal, to more than eight years in prison, rejecting a recommendation in the plea agreement for a lighter sentence. Reddy was a prominent East Bay property owner who pleaded guilty to immigration and sex charges for admittedly submitting false visa applications to bring young girls from poor villages in India to the United States. He would then make them work for his rental or restaurant properties and have sex with him. Four others still face charges for helping Reddy carry out his scheme. The recusal gives Reddy at least a toehold to challenge his sentence. When asked whether Reddy would consider doing so, his lawyer, Ted Cassman of Cooper, Arguedas & Cassman in Oakland, Calif., declined to comment. It does not seem likely that Armstrong recused herself because of personal animus toward the lawyers. She has a record of sanctioning attorneys who get out of line, something that hasn’t happened in this case. It is also puzzling because the judge has proven to be a stickler for details and the letter of the law — in other words, not one to overlook a conflict. Despite being perceived as perhaps the most pro-prosecution judge on the Northern District bench, Armstrong has disallowed wiretap evidence because the tap was granted only conditional approval. She also tossed a criminal case because she thought the prosecutor was out of line — a move that left even some in the defense bar scrambling to save the prosecutor’s reputation. But defense attorneys probably aren’t crying in their beer about the new judge. The case was assigned to Claudia Wilken, considered less of a hawk than Armstrong. Wilken is a former public defender; Armstrong, a former police officer and prosecutor. The recusal will also likely delay a possible civil suit against Reddy on behalf of the victims. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and San Francisco-based Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain. For now, partner Michael Rubin is still hoping for an out-of-court resolution before any case is filed. But he was also shocked by the mysterious development. “Nobody has any idea,” Rubin said. “I know we’ve tried to guess ourselves. But when a judge decides to recuse herself, we respect that.” Rao is not the only interpreter whose neutrality has been challenged, although she is the only one alleged to have encouraged lies. Bharat Kona, president of the Bay Area Telugu Association, also worked as an interpreter in the case. But while doing that he wrote a letter to Armstrong on behalf of the association urging a lengthy sentence for Reddy. Another interpreter, Nalini Shekar, worked at Maitri, a San Jose, Calif., nonprofit agency aiding South Asian women subjected to domestic abuse, which helped the victims. She attended a candlelight vigil for one of the girls Reddy brought to the San Francisco Bay Area, whose death led to an investigation of Reddy. She also appeared on the courthouse steps alongside the ACLU after Reddy was sentenced, and was quoted in an ACLU press release that day.

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