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Judge Removes Herself From Stun Belt Case

July 23, 1998|JACK LEONARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Long Beach judge who drew heavy criticism for ordering a defendant shocked with an electric stun belt because he interrupted her in court has removed herself from the defendant's case, court officials said Wednesday.

Municipal Judge Joan Comparet-Cassani recused herself last week, officials said, just two days after Ronnie Hawkins, 48, filed a $50-million lawsuit against her, alleging that her order violated his constitutional and human rights.

The case has been reassigned to Superior Judge Arthur Jean, said Margaret Hay, supervising judge of the Long Beach Superior Court.

Hawkins had been convicted in a three-strikes case for burglary and petty theft with a prior. Comparet-Cassani was scheduled to sentence Hawkins on July 29 after Hawkins had asked for his hearing to be delayed so he could recover from the shock administered June 30.

Hawkins, who was strapped with the belt during the sentencing hearing because of disciplinary problems while in jail, was acting as his own attorney when Comparet-Cassani gave the order before a crowded court. Witnesses said his face contorted and his limbs went stiff during the 50,000-volt, low amperage jolt.

Hawkins' lawsuit may have been significant in prompting Comparet-Cassani to recuse herself, said Mike Concha, head deputy public defender at the Long Beach courthouse.

"She would say that she has no bias or prejudice in handling the remainder of his case," Concha said. "But the appearance is such--because he's filed a lawsuit against her--that she could not be fair and impartial."

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The heavy criticism may also have taken a toll, he said. Deputy public defenders who were present said they were outraged, and legal experts and civil rights groups have denounced the judge's decision as an "abuse of power."

"She may also feel that, because of what happened, it's time to take herself out of the eye of the storm," Concha said.

Concha said he expressed concern to Comparet-Cassani soon after the June 30 incident. Nearly a week later, he said, the judge called him into her chambers.

"She said she had thought about it and she would handle the situation entirely differently if it happened again," Concha said.

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