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Charlton Heston rant rattled judge; court tosses murder case

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/2/2017 By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press
FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2002 file photo, National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston holds up a rifle as he addresses gun owners during a "get-out-the-vote" rally in Manchester, N.H. A Philadelphia judge's clash with the late actor has indirectly led to a U.S. appeals court decision to overturn a 1998 murder conviction. The judge met with the victim's family during the bench trial to discuss a blog they started that noted the "Ben-Hur" actor had called her soft on crime in an NRA speech in Philadelphia. The U.S. appeals court threw out the murder conviction last week, saying the meeting was inappropriate and the defense lawyer ineffective. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Oct. 21, 2002 file photo, National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston holds up a rifle as he addresses gun owners during a "get-out-the-vote" rally in Manchester, N.H. A Philadelphia judge's clash with the late actor has indirectly led to a U.S. appeals court decision to overturn a 1998 murder conviction. The judge met with the victim's family during the bench trial to discuss a blog they started that noted the "Ben-Hur" actor had called her soft on crime in an NRA speech in Philadelphia. The U.S. appeals court threw out the murder conviction last week, saying the meeting was inappropriate and the defense lawyer ineffective. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Philadelphia judge's clash with the late actor Charlton Heston has indirectly led a U.S. appeals court to overturn a murder conviction.

The victim's family had created a blog during the 1998 trial that quoted Heston, of "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" fame, calling Judge Lisa Richette soft on crime. Heston had called her by the nickname "Let 'em Loose Lisa" during a National Rifle Association speech that year in Philadelphia.

The blog prompted Richette to call the victim's family to her chambers, with the prosecutor and defense lawyer but not the defendant on hand. She suggested that victim Mark Gibson's family had slandered her, but then assured them she would try the case fairly.

She ultimately found defendant Paul McKernan guilty of first-degree murder and sent him to prison for life. McKernan had claimed self-defense in the baseball bat death.

In appeals over two decades, he argued that Richette had bent over backward to appease the Gibson family.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court last week called the late judge's back-room conversation inappropriate and found the defense lawyer ineffective.

"Judge Richette's actions would have caused any competent attorney to seek recusal immediately," Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth wrote in a unanimous three-judge opinion.

Defense lawyer W. Fred Harrison Jr. did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday.

McKernan, after serving 20 years in prison, will be released unless the Philadelphia District Attorney decides to retry him. The case remains under review, a district attorney's spokesman said.

"Our client is relieved that that the court after nearly 20 years recognizes that he did not receive a fair trial," lawyer Maria Pulzetti of the Federal Community Defender Office, who handled the appeal, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Richette, who was considered flamboyant, a bit eccentric and something of a bleeding heart, died in 2007. She had attended Yale Law School and was the author of a well-regarded 1969 book on the juvenile justice system called "The Throwaway Children."

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