Judge Paul Backman (Melanie Bell)
When a Broward County defendant suggested the judge give him the death penalty for setting his wife on fire, the judge’s answer got the accused a new trial.
James A. Carter appealed his convictions for attempted felony murder and arson. He claimed Circuit Judge Paul Backman erred by denying Carter’s motion to disqualify the judge.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed Wednesday and ordered the case to be heard by a new judge.
Issuing the opinion anonymously, the panel of Judges Martha Warner, Robert Gross and Burton Conner noted police arrived at the couple’s home to find Carter’s wife “had severe burns all over her body, causing her skin to melt off.”
She told police her husband doused her with rubbing alcohol and set her on fire in their apartment. Carter denied intentionally setting his wife on fire.
At a plea hearing, Backman discussed the potential sentence with Carter’s wife, who agreed to the 20-year sentence offered to her husband.
Backman made several statements to the wife. The appellate court noted in particular that he said, “No person deserves that type of treatment at the hands of anyone for any reason. I’m not sure he deserves what you’re giving him.”
The judge added, “No human being, no animal, no insect deserves that kind of treatment.”
Carter then interjected by saying, “Give me the death penalty, then.”
Backman answered, “Believe me, I wish I could.”
The plea agreement fell apart when Carter denied guilt, and the case was set for trial. Carter filed a motion to recuse the judge, which he denied.
At trial, a jury found Carter guilty of trying to kill his wife by torching her.
The appellate panel found judicial bias, ruling Carter had a well-founded fear that Backman prejudged him and he wouldn’t get a fair trial “in light of the trial judge’s sympathetic comments towards the victim, coupled with the statement that he wished he could give Carter the death penalty.”