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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dismissed With Prejudice, Take 2: Court Denies New Trial To Death Sentenced Defendant Despite Jury Exposure To Racist Comment

Sometimes, I read a court opinion, and all that I can think about are the immortal words of John Patrick McEnroe, Jr."You cannot be serious!" Readers of this blog might remember a post that I did back in February about Rejon Taylor, an African-American man convicted of four capital offenses in connection with a carjacking, kidnapping, and murder and given a death sentence. As I noted in that post,

He thereafter moved for a new trial and evidentiary hearing and moved to interview jurors ahead of that hearing. The basis for the latter motion was at least two-fold. First, according to alternate juror Everage Holloway and two regular jurors, all 12 seated jurors and all six alternates were aware of and discussed media reports which indicated that Taylor had called jurors "racist rednecks." Also, according to Holloway, he "heard (jurors) talking about how we needed to make an example of him. It was like, here's this little black boy. Let's send him to the chair, and all I ever thought was that he made the unluckiest (gun)shot of his life." 

Unsurprisingly, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee found that an evidentiary hearing was not warranted based upon the second allegation because it concerned a matter internal to the jury deliberation process, and Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) indicates that:

Upon an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify as to any matter or statement occurring during the course of the jury's deliberations or to the effect of anything upon that or any other juror's mind or emotions as influencing the juror to assent to or dissent from the verdict or indictment or concerning the juror's mental processes in connection therewith. But a juror may testify about (1) whether extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury's attention, (2) whether any outside influence was improperly brought to bear upon any juror, or (3) whether there was a mistake in entering the verdict onto the verdict form. 

While, as I note in my forthcoming article, Dismissed with Prejudice, there are Constitutional problems with applying this Rule to allegations of juror racism, most courts have found that such racism does not form the proper predicate for jury impeachment because it comes from the jurors themselves and is not external evidence or influence. 

Of course, the same could not be said about the jury's improper exposure to Taylor's comment that the jurors were "racist rednecks," which was clearly extraneous prejudicial information. The court thus ordered an evidentiary hearing on the issue, which in effect, was directed toward answering the question of whether Taylor's characterization of the jurors was correct. The court found that it was not.

At the hearing, Holloway repeated his claim that all of the jurors had heard about Taylor's "racist rednecks" comment. Nonetheless, in United States v. Taylor, 2009 WL 1034940 (E.D. Tenn. 2009), found that this exposure did not cause Taylor substantial prejudice and denied his motion for a new trial because

Holloway's testimony shows the comment did not affect jurors. The comment sparked jokes and laughter among jurors; there was no indication jurors took the comment personally. No juror seemed to take offense at the comment. The comment was not a big deal, Holloway testified. Holloway did not say the comment created fear in any juror....The “racist redneck” comment was not the subject of continuing conversation among jurors. “It was one of those things that got brought up every blue moon, you know, joke-in joke or jest or something,” Holloway testified. “It wasn't serious if it was brought up.”

What? According to Holloway, he "heard (jurors) talking about how we needed to make an example of him. It was like, here's this little black boy. Let's send him to the chair, and all I ever thought was that he made the unluckiest (gun)shot of his life." This seems to me to be pretty clear evidence that the jurors took offense at the comment, resulting in substantial prejudice to Taylor. And to the court, all I have to say is: "You cannot be serious!"

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2009/04/taylor-part-2us-v-taylorslip-copy-2009-wl-1034940edtenn2009.html

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