The prolonged prosecution of hip-hop star Meek Mill is an exceedingly rare case, one that both shows how celebrity fame can draw attention to a criminal proceeding and how everyday defendants, who are mostly poor and not white, get jerked around by the justice system. Mill’s case started with his 2009 conviction on charges related to guns and drugs, which hinged on testimony by a Philadelphia police officer who, per an internal department report, was allegedly corrupt and untrustworthy. Nine years later, the fate of Mill—whose legal name is Robert Rihmeek Williams—is being dictated by a judge who has disregarded the defense and the prosecution in making her rulings, and who has been repeatedly accused by Mill’s attorneys of being personally biased against him.
On June 26, Judge Genece Brinkley rejected the 31-year-old Mill’s latest motion for a retrial on those decade-old charges, saying the rapper “failed to meet his burden of proof.” Although Philadelphia’s top prosecutor has indicated his office would drop charges against Mill should the case be retried, Brinkley remains unmoved. Mill’s team filed multiple motions asking for her recusal from the case, accusing her of exceeding “the proper bounds of the judicial role.” She has rejected these motions, saying recently that she “committed no error.”
After a hearing that preceded Brinkley’s decision not to grant Mill a new trial, one of his lawyers, Peter Goldberger, told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The judge cross-examined [a defense witness] like he was a liar and laughed in his face. And when we objected to the judge laughing at him, she denied she had laughed.” The witness, veteran public defender Brad Bridge—who has led the investigation into cases involving Graham and other officers who appeared on the DA’s “do not call list” of officers who were not regarded as credible witnesses—later called Brinkley’s behavior “an odd spectacle,” saying she’d acted out of line “by disregarding and degrading what I had to say.”
During Mill’s sentencing hearing, Brinkley acted as if the rapper’s behavior was a personal affront, saying, “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court.” Mill’s lawyer Joe Tacopina called the sentence “vindictive.” Brinkley’s rulings in Mill’s case have also drawn rebukes from stakeholders who don’t typically align themselves with defendants. When she sentenced Mill to two to four years in prison for probation violations, she did so against the recommendation of both his probation officer and the prosecutor on the case.
In Philadelphia, like most city and county jurisdictions, judges are elected officials and theoretically are obliged to uphold the vision of justice that they campaigned on. Like district attorneys, whose races (with a couple of exceptions) have typically drawn more attention from the press and the public, judges have tremendous independence and discretion to make decisions that could affect the rest of defendants’ lives. These decisions are rarely scrutinized, save for the occasional high-profile case. Brinkley, for example, was first elected in 1993 and voters have chosen to keep her in office three times since. This is the first case she’s officiated that has received significant public attention.
About half the inmates in Philadelphia jails and one-third of the people in Pennsylvania state prisons are serving time for probation violations, figures a Columbia researcher called “not defensible.” (Pennsylvania has the third-highest rate in the nation of citizens on probation or parole.) When someone is charged with violating the terms of his supervision, a judge calls the shots as she likes. As the Inquirer has reported, “state appellate court rules give broad discretion to the sentencing judge, and appeals judges must not reverse that sentence ‘unless the record discloses that the judgment exercised was manifestly unreasonable or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias or ill-will.’ ”
Mill violated his probation by allegedly engaging in an airport fistfight and recklessly driving a dirt bike in New York City during a music video shoot. The first charge was later dismissed, and Mill reached a plea deal on the second charge in which the case would be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for six months. He did, so that charge was dismissed, too. Nevertheless, Brinkley sought to punish him, citing past infractions she hadn’t sanctioned him for: testing positive for Percocet and traveling without court approval.
Some of the ways Brinkley has handled Mill’s sentencing aren’t outside the norm for Philadelphia courtrooms. The Inquirer recently reported the story of a probationer who has been sent to jail nine times since 2013, most recently for arriving late to court. His lawyer unsuccessfully argued that the repeated jail time derailed his client’s struggle to beat addiction. The Inquirer also noted that in the past four years, seven men that Brinkley sent to prison for minor probation violations have tried to get her decisions overturned on appeal. None were successful. After reviewing those seven cases, Inquirer reporter Joseph A. Slobodzian wrote that when handing down sanctions, Brinkley “berates the probationers for blowing multiple chances at redemption and ‘thumbing your nose at the court.’ ” The newspaper quoted one lawyer who “said that Brinkley’s probationers remain under her control for too long, and when they violate her rules, as most probationers will, ‘it becomes personal.’ ”
Mill’s attorneys have repeatedly accused Brinkley of punishing the rapper because of a personal vendetta. Her grudge, they alleged in motions for her recusal, stems from Mill rejecting her advice that he change management companies and declining her request to record a cover of Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” with a “shout out” to the judge. In February, a lawyer hired by Brinkley called that “a ridiculous and outrageous claim,” adding, “What you have is an organization—extremely wealthy—who wants to attack a sitting judge,” referring to Mill’s legal and publicity teams. In April, Brinkley herself said, “There is no record of such a conversation ever taking place and thus no evidence to support this claim.” She also denied the allegation that she had suggested to Mill that he change management companies, saying she “has no personal interest in any of [Mill]’s professional and business matters.”
But even Brinkley’s lawyer was recently caught on tape saying he thought she should step away from the case. “Prosecution and defense agree—goodbye,” Charles Peruto Jr. said in a hot-mic recording heard by reporters from the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. (“Tape or no tape, I don’t believe I said it,” Peruto said in response to the Inquirer’s reporting.)
Mill is currently out on bail, per an order from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The defense’s argument for a new trial hinges on evidence that Reginald Graham, the officer who arrested Mill and served as the only witness against him, was known at the time to be corrupt. Graham’s name appeared on a list, made public in March, of officers Philadelphia prosecutors didn’t trust to testify in court. A judge recently vacated several of Graham’s old cases, and more than 1,000 others are currently under review. Mill’s lawyers want their client to be part of that review, but for now his case is still in Brinkley’s purview. The Inquirer wrote that in “2,000 cases involving Philadelphia police scandals in recent years, when both the defense and prosecution agreed to a new trial or to seek the dismissal of charges, judges have expeditiously granted the requests.” Brinkley, however, has refused to do the same in Mill’s case.
For now, it looks like Brinkley isn’t going to budge. Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that it was “equally divided” on Mill’s request to remove Brinkley from the case, meaning the request was denied “by the operation of law.” In a dissenting opinion, Justice Max Baer wrote that Brinkley should have removed herself “in the interest of justice,” not because she is biased against Mill or because her rulings have been unreasonable, but because her performance “has created an appearance of impropriety that tends to undermine public confidence in the judiciary.”
Brinkley obviously disagrees, and there’s not much anyone can do to make her change her mind. Time will tell if Mill’s fans and criminal justice reformers will voice their outrage at the ballot box. They’ll have to wait to make their opinions own: Brinkley isn’t up for re-election until 2023.