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Criminal Juror’s misconduct warrants habeas relief

Where a juror consulted with her pastor during a murder trial 20 years ago about whether she could vote to impose the death penalty without running afoul of her religious beliefs, and then communicated the pastor’s assurances to other jurors, the district court’s denial of habeas relief was reversed because of “grave doubt” over whether the misconduct had a substantial and injurious effect or influence on the sentence.

Background

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. We remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine if this error resulted in actual prejudice, thus warranting habeas relief.

Following the evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation concluding that juror misconduct did not have a substantial and injurious effect on the outcome of Barnes’ case. The magistrate judge reasoned that there was no evidence Pastor Lomax had expressed his views on the death penalty or attempted to persuade Juror Jordan to vote for or against it. The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation and denied habeas relief.

Analysis

We note at the outset that our inquiry into whether Barnes has met his burden of showing actual prejudice is frustrated to some extent by the application of Federal Rule of Evidence 606 in this context. That rule provides that 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.”

Rule 606 thus presents unique difficulties in the context of juror misconduct claims. For example, Barnes was tasked with proving that Juror Jordan’s conduct affected the jury’s decision, but he was prohibited from directly asking any of the jurors about this effect.

Given how Rule 606 limits the presentation of evidence in these circumstances, it is especially important for us to view the record practically and holistically when considering the effect that a juror’s misconduct “reasonably may be taken to have had upon the jury’s decision.” Doing so in this case leaves us with “‘grave doubt’ about whether the trial error had a ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence’ on the [sentence].”

Juror Jordan, a devoutly religious individual, was struck by an 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. While Rule 606 deprives us the benefit of “smoking gun” testimony, the natural ramifications of this series of events are apparent.

Reversed and remanded.

Dissent

(Agee, .J.): The majority grants Barnes habeas relief based on its conclusion that a juror’s external communication with her pastor may have “assuaged reservations about imposing the death penalty that the attorney’s comments may have instilled” and thus actually prejudiced Barnes’ sentencing. Because the record does not support the majority’s conclusion that the external communication actually prejudiced Barnes, I respectfully dissent.

Barnes v. Thomas (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-173-19, 42 pp.) (Henry Franklin Floyd, J.) (G. Steven Agee, J., dissenting) Case No. 18-0005. Sept. 12, 2019. From M.D.N.C. (Thomas D. Schroeder, C.J.) M. Gordon Widenhouse Jr. for Appellant, Jonathan Porter Babb Sr. for Appellee.


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