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The Courage of Our Convictions

Speaking of self-defense cases, here’s a story you don’t hear very often.

A retired judge in New York has prompted the courts there to overturn a murder conviction that he believes was a mistake, and here’s the thing: the judge says he’s the one who made the mistake.

In 1999, Frank Barbaro presided over the trial of a white man who was accused of shooting a black man outside a movie theater. The defendant had waived his right to a jury, so the case was tried to the court instead. The defendant argued that he shot the man in self-defense, but Barbaro didn’t believe him and thought he was motivated by racism. He found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 15 years to life.

But the case continued to gnaw at Judge Barbaro, and over the years, his doubts grew. Along the way, he obtained a copy of the trial transcript, and as he read it, he says, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so obvious I had made a mistake. I got sick. Physically sick.”

He now says it was his own bias against the defendant, whom he viewed as a bigot, that led him to convict. In 2011, he called the defendant’s lawyer to say so, and that phone call eventually led to a court hearing last December. At the hearing, Barbaro took the stand as a witness to testify that his bias had deprived the defendant of a fair trial. In response, prosecutors opposed the defense’s motion to set aside the verdict and called the judge’s memory and mental health into question. But Barbaro says his mind is clear as a bell, and he offered another explanation for the root of mistakes like his and others:

“I think too many times there is pressure to finish cases, get the cases done and off the calendar. This pressure dooms people to be convicted unjustly. Now I’m not saying every case, but one is too much.”

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