After a closed-door meeting with lawyers in the election fraud case against Compton City Councilman Floyd A. James, a Los Angeles judge abruptly postponed sentencing last week when James' attorney asked that the judge disqualify himself.
Neither defense lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. nor Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Sowders would discuss what happened during the 30-minute meeting in the judge's chambers Thursday. But Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz emerged visibly upset and quickly took the bench, at which time Cochran announced his desire to file a "recusal motion."
Such a request is usually based on a belief that the judge cannot render a fair sentence because he is in some way prejudiced against the defendant.
"We're asking the court to assign the case to another judge," Cochran said later, without elaborating. Watching from the courtroom audience were Compton Mayor Walter R. Tucker, Councilman Robert L. Adams, Councilwoman Jane D. Robbins and several other city employees who had been subpoenaed by Cochran to testify on James' behalf.
Munoz, who has previously declined to comment while the case is pending, set a May 14 hearing to consider Cochran's request. If Munoz denies it, Cochran can appeal to another judge.
Earlier this year, the 46-year-old James pleaded no contest to a charge of mailing an illegal campaign notice to voters during his bitter 1985 reelection battle against challenger Patricia A. Moore. The only catch was that James had to let Munoz decide if the violation deserved to be a less serious misdemeanor or a felony that would make him ineligible to hold office under California law. At that time, Cochran expressed confidence that Munoz would view the case as a misdemeanor because prosecutors had let James' co-defendant, Inglewood political consultant Roderick Wright, plead no contest to the same reduced charge.
As Munoz prepared to sentence James last month, however, he told lawyers that he intended to make the charge a felony unless the City Council withdrew a recent public nuisance citation against a prosecution witness, Francesca Houpe.
A short time after Houpe had testified at the councilman's July, 1986 preliminary hearing, Compton police arrested her for allegedly cultivating three marijuana plants in her backyard. Prosecutors, however, twice declined to file charges against her.
Tip Was Anonymous
James eventually acknowledged that he had reported the plants to police after receiving a tip from someone who wished to remain anonymous. (The witness refused to take a lie detector test for district attorney investigators.) And James said he also had discussed the case in general with City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. shortly before Fenderson recommended that the council cite Houpe under a year-old public nuisance ordinance designed to combat illegal drug sales.
Houpe has since filed a $5-million claim against the city, contending that her Constitutional rights were violated.
City Council members were so angered by Munoz's threat that they voted 3-1, with Councilman Maxcy D. Filer opposed and James abstaining, to file a complaint with the state Commission on Judicial Performance. The commission investigates misconduct charges against judicial officials.