McKernan v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI, No. 14-4506 (3d Cir. 2017)Annotate this Case
In 1998, McKernan was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his former roommate, Gibson. McKernan admitted to hitting Gibson with a bat but claimed that it was self-defense and that Gibson’s injuries arose from Gibson hitting his head on the curb. During McKernan’s bench trial, after the Commonwealth had rested but before the defense had started its case-in-chief, the judge called the victim’s mother, his brother, the prosecutor, and defense counsel, into her robing room. McKernan was not present. The meeting was transcribed. The judge discussed online criticism of her decisions, including statements on the Gibsons’ website, and stated that she “want[ed] to make sure that you folks are happy with me.” Defense counsel did not object. The judge and Gibson’s brother agreed that the judge could “redline” the website. After conferring with McKernan, defense counsel told the judge and prosecutor that his client had “concerns” because “he thinks that you may be constrained to lean over backwards,” but advised McKernan to continue before the judge. After exhausting state remedies, McKernan filed an unsuccessful federal habeas petition. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of relief, finding that the state courts unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent as to whether McKernan’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek and for advising McKernan not to seek the judge’s recusal.