Franklyn Williams is a 32-year-old Black Ohioan who, at his sentencing hearing, was talking. Judge John Russo thought he was talking too much. So with Williams surrounded by six officers, Judge Russo ordered them to place red tape over Williams’ mouth.
The judge explained his reasoning for having tape put over Williams’ mouth. It was to “maintain decorum.” After silencing Williams with duct tape, Russo proceeded to sentence Williams to 24 years in prison, in absentia, for aggravated robbery, kidnapping, theft, misuse of credit cards, and unlawfully possessing weapons.
What Russo did to Williams isn’t just humiliating and unnecessary — it’s against the law.
All criminal defendants have a right to speak at their sentencing hearing. Under both federal and Ohio law, a judge at sentencing must address the defendant personally and ask if he wishes to make a statement on his own behalf or present any information that the judge should take into account before delivering punishment.
This is why the requirement is so important — it’s the last opportunity for a defendant to influence a judge’s decision about the punishment to be imposed. If the defendant chose not to testify at trial, or go to trial at all, then the sentencing hearing is oftentimes the only opportunity for the judge to hear directly from the person she or he is about to punish.
Judges in Ohio who silence defendants face the possibility that their original sentence will be tossed out by an appellate court. In Silsby v. State, the Supreme Court of Ohio found that the defendants in the case were not allowed to speak at their own sentencing hearings, even though they properly raised the issue at the time. As a result, the court ordered the defendants to be resentenced. Silsby has been the law since the 1920s, it is still the law, and it still protects the rights of defendants, like Williams.
In Williams’ case, even though the judge allowed him an opportunity to speak on his own behalf, it is clear from the video that Williams wanted to present more information about his case and his experience in the system. He wanted to tell the judge that he was handcuffed on a bus for five days on the way back to Ohio and that he’d met his public defender only a few days before the sentencing hearing. This particular fact is important information because the new lawyer may not have known all of the mitigating information, so allowing Williams to present his own evidence was critical to the appearance of fairness at his sentencing hearing.
Whether Judge Russo’s denial of Williams’ right to fully express himself constituted a violation of federal or state law, or both, is a question left to an appellate court. Judge Russo has since shown remorse for his actions, issuing the following statement several days after Williams’s hearing:
“A judge has a moral and ethical obligation to avoid the appearance of impropriety. To my colleagues on the bench in Cuyahoga County, and the 700+ judges in the state of Ohio, I regret any impact or repercussions from my actions last week, I never want the fairness and justice you deliver in your courtrooms to be questioned, no matter the circumstances.”
As a former public defender, I appreciate Judge Russo’s apology to Williams. With the jail or prison time looming, a criminal sentencing hearing can be emotionally charged for the defendant. It is, arguably, one of the lowest points in a person’s life, and judges need to take that into account. I’ve had former clients cry and express sincere remorse, and I’ve also had former clients cuss everyone out, including the judge. It may not be the smartest thing to do, but it is the defendant’s right to say whatever he wants.
Williams is going to be in prison for a very long time. He should have been able to speak his mind at his own sentencing. The law demanded it, and Ohioans deserve courts that uphold the people’s rights, no matter which defendant is facing a judge or which judge is presiding.