Friday, September 13, 2019

"Just Wanted To Know If I Will Burn In Hell"

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has remanded a case in which habeas corpus relief had been denied

More than 20 years ago, Petitioner William Leroy Barnes was convicted of murder in North Carolina state court and sentenced to death. Following the trial, Barnes sought to overturn his death sentence, claiming that during sentencing deliberations, a juror improperly consulted with her pastor about whether she could vote to impose the death penalty without running afoul of her religious beliefs. She then relayed his guidance to the entire jury. Barnes’ juror misconduct claim made its way through the North Carolina state courts, culminating in a final denial in state post-conviction proceedings. On Barnes’ first federal habeas appeal, we held that the post-conviction court violated clearly established federal law by failing to afford Barnes a presumption of prejudice and an evidentiary hearing on his juror misconduct claim, as required by Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 229 (1954). We remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine if this error resulted in actual prejudice, thus warranting habeas relief. We now hold that it did.

In closing argument counsel for a co-defendant made an explicit religious appeal to the jury

Surely, one among you believes in God, the father, the son, the Holy Ghost, the teachings of Jesus Christ. And if you do, you know that Frank Chambers will have two judgment days. The one he’s got today, where you sit as his judge, and you determine what happens with his earthly life. . . . [I]f you are a true believer, you know that he will have a second judgment day. . . . On that day, he will be judged not by the law of man, but by a higher law, the laws of God. . . . If you’re a true believer and you believe that Frank Chambers will have a second judgment day, then we know that all of us will too. All of us will stand in judgment one day...

These statements were presented with no interjection from the prosecution or the trial court. The next day, the jury recommended that Barnes be sentenced to death. Immediately after the jury returned its sentencing recommendation and exited the courtroom, Barnes’ attorney alleged to the trial court that one of the jurors had met with her pastor to discuss the death penalty during sentencing deliberations and had relayed the pastor’s counsel to the other jurors.

Post conviction proceedings led to an acknowledgement of the pastoral counseling

In response to a question posed by Barnes’ counsel, Juror Jordan also noted that when she spoke with Pastor Lomax, she had already “made up in [her] mind” on the sentence she was going to vote for; she “just wanted to know if [she] was going to burn in hell for it.”

Circuit Judge Agee dissented and found no prejudice

The magistrate judge’s report and recommendation concluded Barnes’ petition should be denied, finding any error was harmless “because there was no actual prejudice to [Barnes] since the jury verdict in this case was not tainted by the third-party contact between Juror Jordan and” her pastor. J.A. 2395. In particular, the magistrate noted that the evidence did not show that the juror’s conversation with her pastor touched on the appropriate punishment for any defendant in this case, but rather centered on whether the Bible would ever allow a devout juror to impose the death penalty. The magistrate judge also pointed to the nature of Barnes’ crimes and the jury’s decision to sentence two defendants to death and one to life imprisonment as confirmation that the verdicts were based on the proper statutory facts before the jury rather than an improper external influence...

The majority opinion’s contrary conclusion stems from multiple missteps. At the outset, it draws the specious conclusion that the third-party communication advocated for the death penalty: a conclusion wholly without support in the record. That conclusion ignores the entirety of the testimony concerning what the pastor said: first, that jurors would not go to hell if they voted to impose the death penalty, and, second, that the Bible said individuals should follow the law of the land. These statements are neutral on the question of how Barnes should be sentenced. What is more, the majority’s conclusion contradicts the testimony of both Juror Jordan and Juror Peacock that the information relayed directly or indirectly from the pastor did not advocate for or against the death penalty.

(Mike Frisch)

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