A Pittsburgh judge has been reassigned after reportedly referring to a Black female juror as “ Aunt Jemima” after the acquittal of a drug defendant late last month.
Judge Mark Tranquilli of Allegheny County Common Pleas is off the bench for now and restricted to “administrative duties only” for the racist remark, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Allegheny County President Judge Kimberly Berkeley Clark announced the reassignment Tuesday.
Tranquilli was reportedly “visibly upset” that the suspect, who was charged with possession with intent to sell, had been found not guilty and voiced his frustration during a meeting with Assistant DA Ted Dutkowski and defense lawyer Joe Otte after the trial. He further criticized Dutkowski, accusing the prosecutor of doing a poor job at screening jurors.
Otte would later file a complaint with the state Judicial Conduct board, detailing what transpired in the judge’s chambers.
In their meeting, Tranquilli argued “Ted had made a terrible decision by allowing ‘Aunt Jemima’ on the jury,” the complaint reads. “The juror, Juror #4, was a young black woman who had worn a hair wrap throughout the trial. [Tranquilli] expressed he knew Ted wasn’t going to get a conviction from the moment Juror #4 was questioned.”
The judge allegedly repeated the racist remark, and continued disparaging her by suggesting her “baby daddy” was likely a heroin dealer. Thus, “[her] presumed bias in favor of heroin dealers had caused or contributed to the not guilty verdict.”
“Aunt Jemima,” a racist and sexist trope borne out of late 19th-century minstrel shows, is based on stereotypical images of African-American women, particularly those who were enslaved. Nancy Green, a former slave herself, was made the spokeswoman of the popular pancake and breakfast food brand in 1890, according to Black America Web.
Her iconic bandana-and-apron look coupled with a catchy Vaudeville-era tune brought the brand much success, despite the image’s racist connotation.
After receiving the verdict, Otte said Tranquilli “read it [and] immediately tossed it back at his minute clerk.” He claims the judge didn’t try to conceal his vexation and “proceeded to make several comments about my client’s criminal history in the presence of the jury.
Tranquilli later called Otte and Dutkowski into his chambers where he made the racist remark about the Black juror.
The defendant had been previously convicted of simple possession and, following a hung jury, was being retried on a count of possession with intent to deliver.
The incident prompted calls for the judge’s immediate suspension, including from the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh. Additionally, Allegheny County Bar Association President Lori McMaster says her organization supports any effort to “eliminate implicit and explicit racial bias in our legal system.”
It’s unclear how long Tranquilli’s suspension will last.