The Rapping Judge and the Warm Body with a Bar Card

Stephanie Volin
16 min readApr 19, 2022

With Oregon currently under fire for its understaffed and unconstitutional public defense system, it’s finally time to talk about what happened to Jajuane Etheridge in Clackamas a decade ago, while his state-paid attorney was supposed to be safeguarding his due process rights.

Due process basically means fair, transparent, and equal court procedures — and if a public defender is handling too many cases at once, as they are in Oregon, they simply cannot protect every client’s rights. That includes the right to be heard by an unbiased judge.

Etheridge’s case is a textbook example of what can go wrong for a defendant — particularly a Black defendant — trapped in such a broken system, and saddled with a free but ineffective public defender… “a warm body with a bar card.”

In this instance, Etheridge’s lawyer allowed a plainly prejudiced judge to snuff out his due process, and even sat back as she rapped her verdict at him.

And as wildly inappropriate as that was, it wasn’t even the worst violation of Etheridge’s constitutional rights, just the most noticeable.

I first learned of Etheridge’s 2012 criminal case in late 2020, while researching a story on judicial bias at Clackamas court, where the judges gossiped like middle-schoolers: eagerly, frequently, and with little concern for accuracy.

But Etheridge’s case shocked me. Articles about it widely referred to Judge Susie Norby “rapping” her verdict to the defendant, who is Black — as if that was a normal or acceptable thing, or as though it was funny or adorable or clever.

In fact, it is none of those things. It is racist, and some would even call it disturbed.

There is no defense for a judge who acts in such a bizarre and appalling manner, and no defense for media that endorses such misconduct by writing cutesy articles about it. That is to say, Judge Norby should have been asked to resign, not rewarded with the attention she desperately sought.

Horrified by this abuse, I contacted Etheridge, who has been incarcerated for nearly a decade now, since two days after the crime he was charged with occurred. J.J., as he prefers to be called, was eager to speak about his case, his public defender, Judge Norby’s behavior, and Oregon’s courts.

When asked specifically how he felt as Judge Norby rapped her verdict, he said, “I was shocked. I was literally shocked. There were very few times that I’ve been speechless, but I was speechless.”

He paused briefly, then continued, “Rapping was just plain racist. I am sure she wouldn’t do that to a white person. I lost faith in the justice system.”

The crime

On October 19, 2012, a Black man met two dog breeders in a Clackamas shopping center parking lot. After they chatted, he signed their paperwork in order to purchase two English bulldog puppies.

Then, instead of giving them $2000, he threatened them with a gun and fled with one of the dogs, in an Acura driven by an accomplice. The breeders, James and Patricia Steele, briefly gave chase and managed to write down the car’s license plate number as it sped away.

The story was soon front-page news up and down the West Coast — and not because two elderly people were robbed.

No, it was because a cute puppy was in danger, which meant that white people were losing their ****ing minds. And when that happens, due process goes out the window.

The accused

J.J. Etheridge has had some experience with Oregon and Washington courts. He faced unrelated criminal charges in 2007 and 2008, and was on post-prison supervision in October 2012.

At the time, he was 23 years old and attending Portland Community College, studying real estate. He was getting his life back on track and expected to graduate at the end of the school year.

Instead, he has been incarcerated since then. The earliest he may be paroled is February 2025, at which time he will be nearly 36 years old.

“I was no angel. I’ve done stuff in my life. I always admit it.” J.J. told me, referring to the 2007 and 2008 charges. “But I did not do this. I did not steal that dog.”

The story

There is no dispute that the Steeles were robbed of the puppy at gunpoint by a Black man who fled in an Acura, which at one point belonged to J.J. There is also no dispute that the day after the crime, J.J.’s then-girlfriend Elizabeth Shaw called police, claiming that she had seen a story on tv about the robbery, and that J.J. had given her daughter the puppy as a birthday gift. He surrendered after a three-hour standoff with police.

At the time of his arrest, according to the Clackamas Sheriff’s spokesperson, J.J. was “suspected of being involved in the incident,” but was “not believed to be the same man who brandished the gun at the Steeles.”

J.J. has consistently denied stealing the puppy, and maintains that he was at his mother’s house when the crime happened, and seen there by two relatives. He believes that the crime may have been committed by Jason Stedman, to whom J.J. had recently sold his Acura; or Jason Chadman, whose signature was on the Steele’s paperwork; or Jonathan Coleman, who is listed as a suspect on the police report. J.J. also states that he has since learned that Shaw was cheating on him with Coleman at the time.

Through our many conversations I have learned that J.J. reads avidly, leads a group of fellow inmates in GOGI life tools, and is planning for the rest of his own life outside of prison, whenever that day actually comes. He is a smart, talented, and engaging person whom I have found quite credible.

But far more important than whether or not I (or you) believe his alibi or alternate theory, is whether or not we believe that J.J. got a fair proceeding… got his due process.

No reasonable person could believe that he did.

The case

After his arraignment in Clackamas, J.J. was assigned a public defender who then quickly withdrew from the case. “I can no longer trust her,” J.J. wrote in his motion to have her removed. “She has not in any way worked in providing an adequate defense for me.”

The court warned J.J. not to “get sideways” with any new lawyer — as if it were solely his fault — and then appointed Linda Beloof to replace the removed one.

According to J.J., everything was going well enough at the beginning. The private investigator working on the case believed J.J.’s story, particularly that he could not have made the round trip to and from the crime scene in the brief time that he was away from Shaw’s Vancouver apartment. The P.I. clocked the round trip at one and a half hours, which did not even include the time the perpetrator spent haggling with the Steeles and then threatening them with a gun. Yet Elizabeth Shaw told police that J.J. was gone from her apartment that day for only 30–45 minutes.

The P.I. recommended that a handwriting expert be hired to testify regarding the puppy sale paperwork. J.J. suggested that Beloof get a sample of Coleman’s writing for comparison.

Coleman also fit the description of the perpetrator that the Steeles gave at the time of the incident: a 5’10” Black male, approximately 150 lbs. And according to Shaw, she had learned from police that the perpetrator was also missing a tooth. J.J. is just under six feet tall and “has not weighed less than 185 lbs.” since he was a high school freshman. He is also not missing any teeth.

Most troublingly, after his arrest, J.J.’s face was splashed all over television and newspapers as the prime suspect in the puppy theft for more than two weeks before Jim Steele was brought in for an identification. Mr. Steele admitted that he looked at the paper and watched the news every day, and certainly followed developments in his own traumatizing case.

It took Mr. Steele 42 seconds to pick J.J. from the six photos shown to him. Mrs. Steele was unable to identify J.J. at all.

The warm body

Despite the P.I.’s confidence in him — or at least in his ability to beat the prosecution’s case — Beloof did not want to call his relatives as witnesses or challenge the tainted identification, and she scoffed at his request to subpoena Coleman’s handwriting for comparison. According to J.J., she claimed that it was “not possible.” That, of course, was laughably false. Apparently Beloof had prejudged J.J. as guilty and stupid.

She rarely met with J.J., visiting him in jail just once, and then only because he had written her a letter maintaining his innocence and demanding that she do more to defend him.

Rather than heed his words, Beloof instead did something especially disturbing: she used his distraught letter to try to get out of representing him, just weeks before trial. In her overly long motion to withdraw, she described him as a “quite demanding and difficult” client who wrote “chastising letters” and who yelled at her once. Beloof stated that she had “ignored many of the defendant’s behaviors” because she believed that “he is just a controlling person and wants to be involved in his case.”

Those were incredibly reckless and prejudicial statements to put in writing and send to a judge. Beloof could have written a boilerplate motion, but she consciously chose not to. Even worse, Beloof’s motion quoted a phrase from J.J.’s letter, including a single word that he had misspelled:

Look at that again and try hard to think of a valid or sincere reason why Beloof would lift an otherwise unremarkable quote from a defendant and not only reprint his misspelling, but draw attention to it by adding the word “sic.”

I can only think of one reason and it is not valid or sincere, it is hostile: it appears that Beloof wanted the court to know that her client was ignorant; and the only reason anyone ever wishes to convey a message like that is so that someone will become prejudiced.

Beloof’s detrimental motion to abandon her client at the eleventh hour was denied by Judge David Herndon.

However, the transcript from the hearing is worth reading in its entirety, as it illustrates what it looks like to have an overextended public defender and the kind of judicial prejudice they can inflict; and more significantly, it demonstrates how easy it is to brand as problematic — or even dangerous — a Black man literally fighting for his life. Yeah, due process can be such a drag.

So, J.J. was forced to continue with Beloof, his ineffective and outright adverse counsel. He turned down a plea agreement offer of 90 months (seven and a half years) that she was pushing. “I didn’t do the crime, so I refused to take it.” He would have been out by now had he accepted it.

Beloof then sowed additional bigotry against her client when she requested a trial delay by mentioning additional work that the handwriting witness needed to do, but she carelessly framed it as a change of their expert opinion:

Linda Beloof, Hearing of May 28, 2014, Page 30

Now, the judge at that hearing, Judge Katherine Weber, would not go on to oversee J.J.’s trial, but given the fact that the judges in Clackamas evidently gossip like schoolchildren, it is likely that Beloof’s doubts and hostility made it from Judges Herndon and Weber’s courts into all the other judges’ ears.

As if that all weren’t bad enough, his attorney then recommended that J.J. waive his right to a jury trial. According to him, Beloof and Judge Weber advocated for a bench trial because Clackamas juries “would only see a Black man and the crime.” That is to say, his own attorney and a judge were signaling to J.J. that the people of Clackamas were too racist to give him a fair trial.

That’s quite an admission, and one that was unfortunately of serious concern to J.J. In 2012, Oregon was one of only two states (the other being Louisiana) in which a defendant could be convicted by non-unanimous verdict — a practice universally decried as racist, and as of 2021, absolutely unconstitutional.

J.J. told me, “If your own lawyer and the judge are saying ‘hey, these people are too racist to treat you fairly…’” Facing such a negative outlook, of course most defendants would roll the dice with a single judge. Maybe even all.

Based on his [clearly hostile] public defender’s recommendation, J.J. then relinquished his due process right to a trial by his [certainly racist] peers — thereby escaping a possible guilty verdict from a [potentially non-unanimous] jury — and instead submitted to a bench trial in front of a [likely prejudiced] judge.

What on earth could go wrong?

The judge

On July 16, 2014, Jajuane Etheridge appeared in the courtroom of Judge Susie L. Norby, for what he hoped would be a fair proceeding.

Judge Norby is a purportedly progressive white woman who has written about her struggles as a woman in a profession historically dominated by men — never mind that she is a judge in a state that has more women (four, all white) in the top ranks of elected government than any other. By all outward appearances, Oregon is arguably the most progressive state that there is for white women like Judge Norby.

J.J., on the other hand, is a Black man navigating the justice system of arguably the most racist state in the union — yes, I said the most — and whose population is made up of only 1.5% Black people.

And that struggle is real.

The trial

Beloof did not bring her A-game to J.J.’s trial — or her B or C, for that matter — and she seems to have badly botched what she did bring.

The prosecution did not turn over much discovery to Beloof, and she didn’t aggressively pursue what they withheld. For instance, J.J. never saw any surveillance footage of the crime or even the full police report. He can’t say what else might have been missing from the documents Beloof received, because he’s not a defense attorney and it isn’t his job to know what should be in such a file. Obtaining discovery is a fundamental task for any defense lawyer, and failure to pursue it is a sign that they have effectively abandoned the case.

Beloof refused to call any witnesses who could testify that J.J. was at his mother’s house at the time of the crime. Beloof also didn’t do an adequate job on offense (or defense) regarding fingerprint evidence, how long J.J. was gone from his girlfriend’s apartment that day, and the car sale to Chapman before the crime. Beloof also didn’t push enough suspicion onto Coleman. Tellingly, there was zero mention of the second Black man that the Steele’s claimed drove the getaway car, and no charges have ever been brought against anyone as an accomplice in the crime.

A Portland defense attorney I speak with regularly described Mr. Steele’s tainted identification as “shit” and “highly prejudicial,” and said they would have filed a motion to have it tossed. J.J. did file one, himself, but on the first day of trial, Beloof recommended he withdraw it because she wanted Judge Norby to see that Mrs. Steele was unable to make an ID. J.J. withdrew his motion.

The handwriting expert who worked with J.J. stated that there was a “strong probability that he did not [sign the Steele’s paperwork] or would be eliminated as the person who held the pen.”

That professional’s testimony alone should have caused reasonable doubt in a jury. The entire three-day trial transcript may be read here: day one, day two, and day three.

Testimony of Handwriting Expert Jacqueline Joseph, Trial Day 2, Page 369

The verdict

But there was no jury, just Judge Norby — and she made it clear that she knew better than expert witnesses on both sides, and knew better than a witness who testified that she got a good look at her assailant for about twenty minutes, yet was unable to identify him.

Testimony of Patricia Steele, Trial Day 1, Page 62 and 71

And after the three-day trial and a weekend of consideration, Judge Norby came back with her verdict: guilty on all eight charges.

She stated that “The absurdity of the defendant’s testimony on the witness stand is that (Etheridge) will tell any lie, to anyone, at any time, to try to get out of the consequences of his actions.” Further, she called the handwriting expert’s credentials “impressive” but disparaged their testimony, saying that it “fell far short of being persuasive,” and that it was “poorly articulated” and “not definitive.”

More problematically, Judge Norby stated that “[J.J.’s] fingerprint was on the gun.” Yet, no such evidence or testimony was given. The state had presented evidence that a fingerprint of J.J.’s was on the box in which his girlfriend kept her gun, but not on the gun itself, the ammo, or the magazine.

As Judge Norby continued to rattle off this list of inexplicable conclusions and evidence that she apparently imagined that she had seen, J.J. started to shake his head. And then Judge Norby snapped:

Judge Norby, Verdict, Page 617

I asked J.J. what he thought Judge Norby was going to call him before she caught herself. “She had called me a liar already, my mind can only come up with any type of derogatory word… or maybe she was going to curse at me.”

And then she rapped. A white Oregon judge rapped at a Black defendant — revealing that she was horrifically prejudiced, in every possible sense of the word:

Judge Norby, Verdict, Page 624

As far as rapping goes, it wasn’t much… she didn’t have a Roland TR-808 or anything, but, to her credit, she didn’t try to beatbox, either.

Everything that Judge Norby had done and decided up to that moment should have become invalidated when she rapped. She had unmasked herself as prejudiced against a Black defendant.

Judge Norby further revealed her prejudiced nature when she referred to J.J.’s girlfriend as “the only good thing in his life.”

He said no such thing in court.

Judge Norby, Verdict, Page 621

The sentence, the appeal, and the post-conviction relief

Adding insult to injury, Judge Norby then over-sentenced J.J. to 180 months instead of 135 months — nearly four extra years. She, the prosecutor, and Beloof all knew or should have known that the sentence was incorrect, but she ordered it anyway.

According to J.J., Beloof told him not to bother with an appeal.

But he did bother, and his appellate public defender and the Attorney General filed a joint motion to vacate Norby’s judgment and remand the case for resentencing. The appellate court bounced the case back and the sentence was reduced by three and a half years.

After that, J.J. tried to get post-conviction relief based on the “ineffective assistance of counsel,” i.e. Beloof’s poor work. But according to J.J., his new public defender James Van Ness accused him of lying and said that “no judge would overturn” the disgraceful case.

Then J.J. just gave up. That was in 2017.

The judicial complaint

J.J. tells me that I am the only member of the media who has ever tried to speak with him regarding the crime or his treatment in Clackamas. “It makes me feel not only like I don’t matter, but that it is not important when people are wronged if they are Black. I feel like if I was white, none of this would have happened.”

Based on our conversations, J.J. filed a complaint against Judge Norby at the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability. He didn’t know about the judicial code or his right to lodge a complaint for violations of the code.

Nearly all of the complaints the commission receives are immediately denied the day after one of their six yearly meetings, but J.J. has not received a dismissal letter since he filed in early December 2021.

The commission is notoriously secretive and self-protective, but the lack of an outcome thus far suggests that the judicial fitness commission thinks there is a problem with Judge Susie Norby that needs their attention.

While they are at it, the commission should look into the time Judge Norby locked herself in a courtroom and used a court bench as a battering ram (how’s that for a metaphor!) to bust open a door, even though she had access to a computer and knew that help was on its way.

It’s literally — not figuratively — unhinged.

Due process is hard to define, but to paraphrase one of the most famous lines in judicial history: I know it when I see it, and Jajuane Etheridge’s case ain’t it. And this article does not even begin to cover everything that happened to him.

As an aside, an Oregon law enacted last fall likely would have prevented the bad identification of J.J. — although that is not what the law was designed for. It was intended to protect the rights of the accused who had not yet stood trial, by prohibiting the release of their mugshots, thereby eliminating the potential harm and prejudice that comes with pre-trial publicity.

Meaning, people exactly like J.J. — a Black man who stood out in a very white state, accused of a terrible crime, who was supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty… i.e. due process running its course.

We are therefore forced to wonder how many people like J.J. there are in Oregon, in less notorious cases to be sure, but all saddled by the same overworked and ineffective public defenders, who failed to protect their clients’ rights and instead pushed plea bargains or futile bench trials… Thousands? Tens of thousands?

Whatever the number, they are continuing to pile up at an alarming rate.

J.J. tells me, “I still know that I am innocent of the crimes that I were convicted of. I hope that someone, anyone, would help me clear my name. May it be an attorney, a judge, or the Governor of Oregon. I plead that one day there be justice for the grievous wrong that has been committed against me.”

Linda Beloof (now Haines) did not respond to requests for comments on her handling of this case. Judge Norby did not respond to requests for comments on this case or the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability complaint that is pending against her.