A federal magistrate judge who dispenses justice in Yosemite National Park's tiny, picturesque courthouse received an unusual rebuff Tuesday from one of his big-city bosses.
U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger in Fresno tossed out a guilty verdict handed down in fall 2007 by William M. Wunderlich.
The reason: A hangman's noose that was on display in Wunderlich's chambers.
"A prominently displayed hangman's noose has no place in a federal magistrate judge's judicial chambers..." Wanger wrote. "It is a judge's obligation to be a guardian of liberty and to always strive to assure the appearance of impartiality."
Wanger's ruling references a profile of the judge and the Yosemite courthouse that had been published in August 2007 in The Fresno Bee and included a photo of Wunderlich with the noose. A short time later, the San Jose Mercury News published a similar feature story with similar photos.
In fall of 2007, Wunderlich convicted Sonora resident Lorenzo Baca of trespassing on a cultural resource and doing business in the park without a permit after a short bench trial. Baca was sentenced to a year's probation and 198 hours of community service.
Baca, who is part Mescalero Apache and part Pueblo Indian, had asked Wunderlich to recuse himself after photos were published of the judge with the hangman's noose.
Baca maintained the noose "is threatening, intimidating, offensive" and he claimed he could not get a fair trial before Wunderlich.
The motion was denied. After he was convicted, Baca appealed to the federal court in Fresno.
Wunderlich -- who declined to comment on Wanger's ruling -- had said earlier that the noose was given to him as a joke by colleagues when he quit as a prosecutor in 1985 to become a superior court judge. He said the noose has nothing to do with his personal philosophy and that he was "not known as a 'hanging judge' " -- a judge inclined to side with the prosecution.
California State University, Fresno, sociology professor Andrew Jones, however, said there are different ways to interpret such loaded symbols.
From the perspective of the "dominant group," Jones said, the noose could be seen as a joke. But for American Indians, who have faced "attempts at genocide," and blacks, who often faced lynchings, the noose has an entirely different meaning.
"Here is where you get into issues of symbolic representations, and what does it mean," Jones said. "Depending on who you are, you may see nothing more than a piece of rope that has a particular knot, or you see it as a symbol of hate or oppression."
Wanger acknowledges this in his ruling, which takes Wunderlich to task several times in its 36 pages. Wanger refers to the noose as "a symbol of extrajudicial murder and racial hatred" and says Wunderlich "was oblivious to the negative messages of injustice and bigotry that the hangman's noose communicate."
He also wrote that permitting it to be photographed "demonstrates an inexplicable lack of judgment or sensitivity to the message a hangman's noose sends."
As a magistrate judge, Wunderlich is appointed by Fresno's federal judges. Unlike a federal judge, a magistrate judge is not a lifetime appointment. Wunderlich was appointed five years ago to an eight-year term, and he rules mostly on Yosemite's misdemeanor and petty offense crimes.
Brian Landsberg, a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said he has never before heard of a ruling such as Wanger's.
"I can see the objection," he said. "The image of the hanging judge is not an attractive image. It is not an image of neutrality."
But he doubted that Wanger's ruling would have any wider implications for decisions handed down by Wunderlich. If minorities or others had not challenged Wunderlich's decisions in the past, that opportunity is likely lost.
Baca and his attorneys did not return calls seeking a comment.
Wanger's ruling reverses Wunderlich's guilty verdicts, but does give federal authorities the chance to retry the case, should they choose.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which opposed Baca's motion to throw out the verdict, did not return a call seeking a comment.