Judge William Hanrahan recused himself from the trial of Paul Sopko on Tuesday afternoon just prior to a scheduled sentencing hearing. Sopko will be sentenced on a weapons charge by a judge from a different court branch on a date yet to be scheduled.
According to court officials familiar to the proceedings, Judge Hanrahan cited a conflict after sending two letters to the editors of Madison365 disputing some of the reporting in a previous article covering the events of the trial. In that letter he offered to recuse himself if either the state or the defense felt the letter gave “the slightest appearance of partiality.”
Paul Sopko is on trial for allegedly pointing a gun at a 21-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy and, reportedly, saying “I’ll shoot you N—–s.” According to police records, Sopko admitted to pointing the gun at the two victims but claimed it was self-defense, and later said he drew a gun but never aimed it. Police reports also indicate that Sopko lied to police officers about having a valid permit for the gun.
Earlier this month, Sopko was found guilty of carrying a concealed weapon without a permit but not guilty on the charge of intentionally pointing a gun at another. District Attorney Ismael Ozanne did not charge the case as a hate crime despite the use of racial slurs.
The trial proceedings have been called into question in part because a victim in the case took the witness stand while handcuffed and wearing a jail uniform. The events leading to why the victim was handcuffed during his testimony have been in dispute. Judge Hanrahan maintains that the victim remained handcuffed of his own volition, but others cited the failure of jail and court staff to allow him the opportunity to change into everyday clothes as a factor. Whatever the reason, witnesses in the courtroom expressed to Madison365 that the optics of a black victim handcuffed in front of the jury during testimony may have been harmful to the prosecution.
Further, Hanrahan disparaged prosecuting attorneys when the 14-year-old victim had difficulty understanding the process of being sworn in. In his letter to Madison365, Hanrahan said the prosecution “inadequately prepared the child to testify.” In the letter he also mistakenly referred to the adult African American victim, who testified in handcuffs, as “the defendant.”
Madison365 is gathering transcripts and records of the court proceedings and will update this story.