Charlton Heston may be long gone, but he has just helped pry a murder conviction from a deceased Philadelphia judge’s cold hands.
A speech that the late “Planet of the Apes” star gave during a National Rifle Association event in 1998 has indirectly led to the overturning of a murder conviction, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
In an opinion handed down last week, the Third U.S. Circuit Court found that Judge Lisa Richette had acted inappropriately after a murder victim’s family criticized her in part by using Heston’s speech.
In a blog during the 1998 trial, the family of victim Mark Gibson quoted Heston as calling Judge Richette soft on crime and referring to her as “Let ‘em Loose Lisa.”
Richette subsequently called the family into her chambers, along with the prosecutor and defense lawyer — but not defendant Paul McKernan — to assure them that she would handle the case fairly.
The judge ultimately found McKernan, who had claimed self-defense, guilty of first-degree murder.
In appeals filed since then, McKernan contended that the judge went out of her way to make the victim’s family happy. Last week’s opinion from the court determined that Richette’s conversation with the family was inappropriate, and that McKernan’s defense attorney was ineffective.
“Judge Richette’s actions would have caused any competent attorney to seek recusal immediately,” the opinion said.
Richette died in 2007, while Heston died from pneumonia in 2008 at age 84.
McKernan’s case remains under review with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, which must determine whether it will retry him.
In the meantime, McKernan’s current attorney, Maria Pulzetti, said that his client is “relieved” by the development.
“Our client is relieved that that the court after nearly 20 years recognizes that he did not receive a fair trial,” Pulzetti said.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.