A federal appeals court has chastised semiretired U.S. District Judge Oren R. Lewis for the second time this week and ordered a new trial in a case it said was marked by "manifestly erroneous" judicial actions.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said its latest decision was based on "a cumulation of errors" by the 80-year-old Lewis during the 1981 trial of a District of Columbia man convicted of assaulting a federal officer at National Airport.
The same court on Tuesday criticized Lewis in unusually sharp terms for what it called "glaring" mistakes in the trial of a 1981 medical malpractice case in Alexandria. The appellate court ordered that lawsuit reassigned to a different judge for retrial.
Lewis has been a colorful and controversial figure on the federal bench for 22 years in Northern Virginia. Several lawyers said Tuesday's decision was the bluntest in recent memory involving a U.S. district judge in Virginia. One lawyer, who asked not to be identified, described the appeals court's action as "drastic."
Lewis declined yesterday to discuss the decision.
The latest case involved the April 9, 1981, shooting of Alonzo E. Glascoe, 29, by Roger Isaac Jr., a D.C. detective assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration at National Airport.
Glascoe, who was paralyzed below the waist in the incident, was convicted by a jury in September 1981 of assaulting Isaac in a fracas in an airport parking lot. Lewis dismissed a drug possession charge against Glascoe for lack of evidence, but sentenced Glascoe to three years in prison on the assault charge.
Glascoe's attorney, John Zwerling, appealed the conviction, arguing that Lewis denied his client a fair trial by hampering Zwerling's attempts to attack Isaac's credibility. The appeals court agreed.
"The credibility of Isaac's version of the assault encounter was obviously the central issue," the court's decision said.
Zwerling contended in his appeal that he was trying to show the jury that Isaac had given differing versions of the incident to DEA and FBI agents shortly after the shooting and that those accounts also varied from Isaac's testimony at the trial.
Nearly every attempt to do so "was met with resistance by the trial judge," Zwerling complained.
Among the comments faulted by the higher court were remarks by Lewis that, "We are not here to determine whether a policeman lied," and "Isaac's credibility is not on trial here."
Although Lewis instructed the jury that Isaac's testimony should not be given extra weight because he was a police officer, the court said, Lewis also added: "You evaluate, weigh Isaac's credibility and believability as you would if it was a minister on the stand."
Zwerling's objection to all three remarks was "well taken," the court said.