Philly judge denies all emergency motions to release prisoners during coronavirus pandemic

The Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road in Philadelphia (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Updated: 12:15 p.m.

The conduct of a controversial city judge has prompted the Defenders Association of Philadelphia to make a bold move.

In an email sent late Tuesday and obtained by WHYY, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey informed the leadership of the First Judicial District that her office intends to “withdraw all cases listed before the Honorable Anne Marie Coyle” on Wednesday.

Coyle is one of seven judges tapped to rule on dozens of emergency motions aimed at reducing the county jail population during the coronavirus pandemic. Coyle is the only judge who has denied the release of each case before her.

Between April 7 and 9, the first three days the First Judicial District conducted these emergency hearings, judges approved nearly 60% of the motions before them, releasing 235 inmates from county jails, according to data from the Defenders Association.

“While the cases assigned to Judge Coyle are similar in every manner to those presented to all of the other judges who are participating in this program, Judge Coyle is the only [judge] who has failed to grant even a single motion for release and, further, is the only judge who has actually raised bail and made it harder for those persons to be released,” wrote Bradford-Grey.

To date, a total of 62 people in Philadelphia jails have tested positive for COVID-19. On Tuesday, a woman in her 40s with underlying medical conditions became the county’s first prisoner to die from the virus after being hospitalized.

On April 3, amid alarm bells from the Defenders Association and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the First Judicial District agreed to prioritize motions to release people in custody for economic crimes, such as shoplifting; individuals who have served their minimum sentences; and incarcerated people with bail less than $25,000 who have not committed any violent offenses or those involving drugs and guns.

Coyle began presiding over these emergency hearings on Monday.

Over the past two days, the Defenders Association presented Coyle with approximately 34 motions seeking the release of nonviolent inmates detained because they could not afford to post bail or violated parole or probation, according to the email, which was first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Coyle not only rejected all of them, but raised bail in four cases, allegedly advising city prosecutors afterward to tell their supervisors to be “careful what we wish for,” wrote Bradford-Grey.

“Based on what has transpired over the last two days, it is not appropriate nor ethical for us to continue to present petitions before Judge Coyle,” said Bradford-Grey.

Coyle did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier in the day, she denied a reporter’s request to listen in on a live audio feed of the hearings assigned to her courtroom.

In a statement, a spokesman for the First Judicial District said the “court’s leadership acknowledges the Defenders’ ability to withdraw any petition it chooses. The courts remain open, ready and willing to decide any motion legally presented for adjudication.”

District Attorney Larry Krasner was not immediately available for comment.

The decision from the Defenders Association effectively puts Coyle’s courtroom on ice, at least for Wednesday.

During the pandemic, lawyers with the Defenders Association are presenting the overwhelming majority of these motions under an agreement struck with the First Judicial District, though private attorneys are not barred from continuing to represent their clients.

It’s unclear how many cases are on Coyle’s docket on Wednesday, or what will happen to them once the Defenders Association withdraws them.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said putting those cases in limbo is frustrating.

“I know there are a ton of great judges out there who really want to do work and want to help out. And it is disappointing that this is one of the judges that was picked and it’s disappointing the results that are coming out of that room,” said Krasner.

Coyle is not new to controversy.

In February, Pennsylvania’s Superior Court vacated a 3.5- to 7-year state prison sentence she imposed on a man convicted of retail theft — the maximum allowed under state law, according to The Inquirer.

Aaron Lucky served a few months in jail after stealing $120 worth of body wash from a Philadelphia drugstore in 2014. Coyle handed down the new sentence after Lucky, who had missed some probation appointments and failed a drug test after being released, complained about a shorter sentence during a hearing in 2018.

“There is nothing in the record to indicate that the judge’s reason for abruptly reimposing the increased statutory maximum sentence was for any reason other than her frustration with Appellant or her belief that Appellant was being disrespectful,” the Superior Court wrote.

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