Posted Jan 19, 2010 05:51 pm CST
The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a federal appeals court to reconsider the claims of a Georgia death row inmate who is challenging his rape and murder conviction based on some unusual chocolate gifts given to the trial judge and bailiff.
Some jurors hearing the case against defendant Marcus Wellons gave the trial judge chocolate shaped as male genitalia and the bailiff chocolate shaped as female breasts.
In a 5-4 ruling (PDF), the U.S. Supreme Court in a per curiam opinion ordered the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider whether Wellons is entitled to discovery and a hearing in light of a high court ruling last year on behalf of an inmate who contended prosecutors withheld evidence of his drug addiction.
“Neither Wellons nor any court has ascertained exactly what went on at this capital trial or what prompted such ‘gifts,’ ” the Supreme Court wrote in the per curiam opinion. “Wellons has repeatedly tried, in both state and federal court, to find out what occurred, but he has found himself caught in a procedural morass.”
The court said that defense counsel did not learn until after the trial about unreported ex parte contacts between jurors and the judge, that jurors and a bailiff planned a reunion, and that jurors gave the chocolate gifts to the judge and bailiff either during or immediately after the penalty phase of the trial.
“From beginning to end, judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect,” the Supreme Court said in the per curiam opinion. “The disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial, and this petition raises a serious question about whether the Court of Appeals carefully reviewed those facts before addressing petitioner’s constitutional claims.”
Justice Antonin Scalia dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Both opinions criticized the court’s use of a GVR to decide the case—in which it grants a cert petition, vacates a judgment, and remands without arguments or briefs.
In his dissent, Scalia said the 11th Circuit decision rested on an independent ground, so reconsideration will not affect the ultimate outcome of the litigation. The GVR “disrespects the judges of the Courts of Appeals, who are appointed and confirmed as we are, to vacate and send back their authorized judgments for inconsequential imperfection of opinion—as though we were schoolmasters grading their homework,” Scalia wrote.
He complained of a “systematic degradation of our traditional requirements for a GVR.” Now GVR dispositions include a “GVR so the government can try a less extravagant argument on remand, … the GVR in light of nothing, … and the newly-minted Summary Remand for More Extensive Opinion than Petitioner Requested (SRMEOPR). … Today the court adds another beast to our growing menagerie: the SRIE, Summary Remand for Inconsequential Error—or, as the court would have it, the SRTAEH, Summary Remand to Think About an Evidentiary Hearing.”
The case is Wellons v. Hall.
Hat tip to SCOTUSblog.
Associated Press: “Raunchy gifts from jury to judge prompt Supreme Court intervention in Georgia death row case”