EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Sunday, September 29, 2019

4th Circuit Reverses Death Sentences Because Juror Asked Pastor if She Would Go to Hell if She Voted to Impose the Death Penalty

Federal Rule of Evidence 606(b) states that

(b) During an Inquiry into the Validity of a Verdict or Indictment.

(1) Prohibited Testimony or Other Evidence. During an inquiry into the validity of a verdict or indictment, a juror may not testify about any statement made or incident that occurred during the jury’s deliberations; the effect of anything on that juror’s or another juror’s vote; or any juror’s mental processes concerning the verdict or indictment. The court may not receive a juror’s affidavit or evidence of a juror’s statement on these matters.

(2) Exceptions. A juror may testify about whether:

(A) extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention;

(B) an outside influence was improperly brought to bear on any juror; or

(C) a mistake was made in entering the verdict on the verdict form.

There are many odd cases under Rule 606(b), and we can now add another one to the tally: Barnes v. Thomas, 2019 WL 4308636 (4th Cir. 2019).

In Barnes, William Leroy Barnes was convicted of murder. During this sentencing hearing, defense counsel asserted that jurors would go to hell if they voted to impose the death penalty. Thereafter,

Juror Jordan, a devoutly religious individual, was struck by [the] attorney’s assertion that she would go to hell if she voted to impose the death penalty. She approached her pastor and spiritual guide in the middle of jury deliberations to obtain clarity on that very subject, and he assured her that, contrary to the attorney’s arguments, her religious beliefs permitted her to vote for the death penalty. Aware that other jurors had been troubled by the attorney’s remarks, she then spent up to 30 minutes discussing her pastor’s counsel with the entire jury and reading several Bible verses that he had suggested out loud. Other members of the jury testified that Juror Jordan shared the biblical passages to rebut the attorney’s religious statements and “convince someone...it was ok” to impose the death penalty.

The Fourth Circuit found that this behavior clearly established that there was an improper outside influence under Rule 606(b)(2)(B), allowing for jury impeachment and reversal of Barnes's death sentence. The court also rejected the State's argument that the "invited error" doctrine applied based upon defense counsel's improper "hell" assertion. According to the Court,

Because this testimony was elicited by Barnes’ attorney, the State argues the testimony is admissible under the “invited error” doctrine. But even if we were to accept the State’s argument, our conclusion would not change. Juror Jordan shared Pastor Lomax’s counsel with the other jurors in an apparent effort to “convince someone ... it was ok” to vote for the death penalty....And taking Juror Jordan at her word that she had already made up her mind, her testimony necessarily indicates that the only reason to bring Pastor Lomax’s views into the jury room was to convince the other jurors to impose the death penalty. In other words, Juror Jordan’s state of mind is not, alone, dispositive, and we may nonetheless reasonably conclude that Pastor Lomax’s external influence affected the jury’s decision.



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After initial reading, I don't see how the outside influence applies for the defense here. I have heard of some very shaky evidence being upheld that seemed much more egregious than this. (Adnan for example?)

Posted by: Lance Lovett | Sep 30, 2019 4:04:17 AM

Did the state not object to this in closing? I would think a judge would have asked the jurors to disregard such an outrageous assertion.

Posted by: Linnette Garber | Sep 30, 2019 5:59:24 AM

So my question is, was defense counsel in the wrong (legally) to tell the jury they would go to hell if they convict?

Posted by: Robert | Oct 1, 2019 8:16:36 AM

Lance: The bottom line is that jurors are not supposed to talk to non-jurors about the case they're hearing.

Linnette and Robert: I don't know whether there was an objection, but defense counsel's statement was certainly improper.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Oct 10, 2019 5:44:58 PM

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