Judge apologizes for taping defendant's mouth shut, says he 'exhausted every other attempt to restore order'

The Ohio Supreme Court will appoint a new judge to sentence Franklyn Williams.

August 07, 2018, 6:59 PM

A Cleveland judge who ordered a defendant's mouth taped shut during his sentencing hearing has apologized and recused himself from the case after video of the incident went viral.

"As a judge and lawyer, I have spent my career with the bench, public, community groups and bar associations promoting confidence in the justice system. I am concerned that the hearing last week eroded the trust I have worked so diligently with others to build," Judge John J. Russo said in a statement read in court Monday. "In retrospect, while there is legal precedent for gagging a defendant to keep order in a court, I apologize for taking that action last week."

The Ohio Supreme Court will now appoint a new judge to sentence Franklyn Williams, 32, who was convicted in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas of charges including aggravated robbery, robbery and kidnapping.

Russo, who is white, had sentenced Williams, who is black, to 24 years in prison. He faced a maximum consecutive sentence of 134 years, the judge said in his statement.

As Williams walked out of court Monday following Russo's recusal, he yelled: "Freedom of speech. Duct tape. Hashtag," ABC Cleveland affiliate WEWS-TV reported.

PHOTO: Franklyn Williams listens as Judge John Russo of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, Ohio, reads a statement apologizing for ordering that Williams' mouth be taped shut after a series of outbursts, Aug. 6, 2018.
Franklyn Williams listens as Judge John Russo of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, Ohio, reads a statement apologizing for ordering that Williams' mouth be taped shut after a series of outbursts, Aug. 6, 2018.
WEWS

In the video of the July 31 sentencing hearing, Russo can be heard repeatedly asking Williams to stop talking. Williams continued to try to speak.

"I am going to hear from your lawyers, and that means zip it," Russo told Williams at one point.

"But you're not letting me tell you what's going on," Williams replied.

"That means zip it right now -- does that make sense?" Russo said.

"No, it doesn't," Williams said.

Later on in the hearing, just before five deputies place two pieces of red tape over his mouth, Williams said: "I'm not being allowed to speak how I need to speak, he's stopping me from talking, he's gagging me, putting tape over my mouth at this moment."

PHOTO: Judge John Russo of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, Ohio, reads a statement apologizing for duct taping the mouth of a defendant, Aug. 6, 2018.
Judge John Russo of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, Ohio, reads a statement apologizing for duct taping the mouth of a defendant, Aug. 6, 2018.
WEWS

Williams told Fox Cleveland affiliate WJW after the hearing that he felt "humiliated" by the experience.

"And I was so concerned about if my children seen this, and my family seen this. I feel that my constitutional right of freedom of speech has been violated," Williams told WJW.

Russo's statement Monday also addressed Williams directly:

"My decision to end your outbursts came after I'd exhausted every other attempt to restore order to a hearing you continuously impeded. Despite many warnings for you to stop your frequent and offensive outbursts (over 60 interruptions in 54 minutes), you continued to interrupt and hinder the legal procedures of the court –- procedures designed to protect your rights, the rights of your victims and the justice system. It escalated to the point that, as a judge, it was my responsibility to take control of the hearing."

"Due to your many violent criminal acts, the three victims you held at gunpoint have had to live in fear for several years. I continued with the hearing despite your disruptions to give them closure so that they could heal and move forward. That decision may have had the opposite effect. For that, I apologize to the victims," Russo added.

A court official said Russo declined to comment beyond the statement he read Monday.

Williams was represented in the case by Cuyahoga County public defenders Jack Greene and Frank Cavallo.

Neither Greene nor Cavallo immediately responded to ABC News' request for comment.

But Mark Stanton, the chief public defender for Cuyahoga County, said the image of Williams with his mouth taped shut "is not representative of the circumstances" that led to that moment and that Greene and Cavallo showed an "unbridled commitment" to defending Williams despite the challenges it posed. Stanton said Williams absconded during the trial and was brought back after a verdict was reached.

"If you don't look at the totality of the circumstances of that proceeding and every other proceeding leading up to it, you couldn't possibly capture the apparent necessity to do that," Stanton told ABC News. "I support Judge Russo because he has always been a fierce defender of all of our clients' constitutional rights and I know that he wouldn't do that to advance an agenda. I can't speculate to what his actual reason was at the moment he ordered that."

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio disagreed, denouncing Russo's move on Twitter.

"We cannot regard this as normal. It is humiliating. It doesn't just deprive this person of the opportunity to speak before his life is taken away, it steals his dignity. Everything about this is wrong," Elizabeth Bonham, the organization's staff attorney, said in the tweet.

The Cleveland NAACP also weighed in, saying the organization was "outraged by Judge Russo's lack of decency when he ordered Franklyn Williams mouth duct taped. A dog owner that taped his pets mouth got 5 years. This is NOT ok."

There is precedent for allowing defendants to be gagged in court. In 1969, a judge ordered that Bobby Seale, a leader of the Black Panther Party, be chained to his chair and gagged during his trial after he was deemed disruptive, according to the nonprofit Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Stanton said that while he didn't like seeing the tape used and "we hope that situation doesn't arise again," he continues to respect Russo.

"Whether or not the judge is in his right to do that, I know him very well and he has a long history in Cuyahoga County of being extremely deferential and respectful of anyone who stands before him, more particularly when it comes to defendants' rights," Stanton said. "He is fastidious when it comes to those rights."

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