All district court judges in Washoe County were disqualified Thursday from hearing Darren Mack's case because of concerns about their impartiality in the alleged sniper attack on a family court judge handling Mack's bitter divorce from the estranged wife he's accused of murdering.
"There are few characteristics of a judiciary more cherished
and indispensable to justice than the characteristic of
impartiality," said Judge J. Charles Thompson, a senior judge from
Clark County the state Supreme Court appointed to consider the
"A reasonable person ... might question whether or not the
district court judges of the Second District (Washoe County) would
be entirely impartial when one of their own is the victim of such a
serious offense," he wrote in a six-page opinion issued Thursday.
Mack's arraignment was set for Sept. 13 in Reno. The state
Supreme Court will decide who will hear the case, but it's not
clear yet whether the trial will take place in Reno are be moved
Mack's lawyers, Scott Freeman of Reno and David Chesnoff of Las
Vegas, declined to say Thursday whether they were considering
seeking a change of venue.
They sought the order barring district judges in Washoe County
from any involvement "because of the notoriety of this case and
the impact the occurrence at the courthouse on June 12 had on all
the district judges in town," Freeman told The Associated Press.
"We're pleased that an independent judge came to the
inescapable conclusion that this was the right thing to do," he
Justice of the Peace Edward Dannan ordered Mack bound over for
trial in district court on Wednesday on charges of murdering his
wife, Charla, and attempting to murder Family Court Judge Chuck
Weller by shooting him through the window of his third-floor
chambers from a parking garage 300 yards away.
Wednesday's preliminary hearing was held in the same courthouse,
a floor below Weller's chambers.
Judge Thompson acknowledged in his ruling Thursday it was an
"extraordinary request" to disqualify all the district court
judges in Washoe County. He said that judges are "presumed not to
be biased" but that Mack's lawyers were correct in arguing that
"there is at the very least an appearance of bias."
"Justice must not only be impartial. It must reasonably be
perceived to be impartial," Thompson said.
Some of the judges have courtrooms on the same floor as Weller
and at least one judge and several staff workers were interviewed
by police after the shooting.
"This makes them potential witnesses in the criminal case,"
Several judges already have commented publicly on the case and
Washoe District Court Chief Judge Jerry Polaha has discussed
efforts to improve court security, Thompson said.
All the district's judges are acquainted with Weller and "have
a significant personal relationship with him as a fellow judge,"
The courthouse was shut down for hours and a six-block area of
downtown Reno closed off after the shooting of Weller, who was
wounded in the chest but has recovered.
Mack turned himself in to authorities in Mexico 11 days after
Clark County Deputy District Attorney Robert Daskas and
Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli are prosecuting the
case after Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick withdrew
his office because of his longtime relationship with Mack and the
fact he helped negotiate Mack's surrender.
At the preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Weller's administrative
assistant Annie Allison testified about the terror of being just
feet away from the judge when he was shot.
She heard a pop that she at first thought was a light bulb
bursting but then her ears started ringing and Weller "yelled out
that he had been struck and he was in pain."
"It was a yell of shock. It was an incredibly panicked manner
in which he shouted out `I've been hit,"' Allison said. "He said
it in such a way that scared me to a point I will never forget
Dannan ordered Mack to be continued to be held without bail in
the Washoe County Jail.