Fourth Circuit Survey

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Week of September 9, 2019 through September 13, 2019
Highlight Case

Barnes v. Thomas

Decided: September 12, 2019

The Fourth Circuit held that a juror’s external communication with her pastor regarding whether she could impose the death penalty without violating her religious beliefs resulted in actual prejudice to the defendant. The Court reasoned that the defendant was actually prejudiced because the juror shared her pastor’s counsel with the other jurors in order to convince them to impose the death penalty. 

The defendant, William Leroy Barnes, was convicted of first-degree murder in North Carolina state court for the killings of B.P. and Ruby Tutterow. After the jury sentenced Barnes to death for the murders, his counsel sought to have the sentence overturned on the grounds that one of the jurors had possibly consulted her pastor about whether her religious beliefs would allow her to impose the death penalty. Barnes’ counsel believed this same juror may also have subsequently relayed the pastor’s information to her fellow jurors, impermissibly tainting the sentence.  

The Supreme Court of North Carolina denied relief holding that the defendant did not sufficiently prove the alleged contact prejudiced him or affected his right to an impartial jury. Barnes’ subsequent efforts for post-conviction relief at the state level were also denied on the grounds that the same juror misconduct issue had already been taken up and rejected by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Finally, Barnes’ petition for habeas relief was denied by the District Court.

In concluding that the pastor’s external influences impermissibly affected the jury’s decision, the Fourth Circuit looked to the length, (30 minutes), of the juror’s conversation with her peers in which she discussed her pastor’s comments and found this to be a contributing factor to actual prejudice. Additionally, the Court instructed that the harmless error analysis does not focus on the sufficiency of the evidence without the error, but rather the impact of the error on the sentence. 

The dissent argued that the pastor’s communication with the juror was neutral regarding whether to impose the death penalty and therefore did not constitute a prejudicial influence. However, the Court reasoned that because the juror introduced her pastor’s comments to her fellow jurors with the intent to persuade them to impose the death penalty, improper external influences came to bear on the verdict. 

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s denial of habeas relief.

Full Opinion

William S. Anderson