Chat With Pastor May Upend Death Sentence

     (CN) - A juror's discussion with her pastor about the moral ramifications of sentencing a man to death may have improperly influenced the jury, the 4th Circuit ruled.
     William Barnes, an inmate on North Carolina's death row, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1994.
     During closing arguments, an attorney for Barnes' co-defendant cited the Bible's Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," and suggested that the jurors would have to answer to God on Judgment Day if they imposed the death sentence.
     The attorney told the jurors: "You can never justify violating a law of God by saying the laws of man allowed it. If there is a higher God and a higher law, I would say not."
     Immediately after Barnes was sentenced to death, chambers counsel informed the state trial judge that one of the jurors who condemned Barnes discussed the death penalty with her pastor the previous day.
     She then brought a Bible to the jury's deliberations, and read to the jury a passage that said it is the duty of Christians to abide by the laws of the state.
     Barnes moved for a mistrial, claiming that the juror's conversation inserted an external influence on the jury that violated his right to a fair trial.
     A divided three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit ruled Monday that the state post-conviction court should have investigated the allegation of misconduct. It remanded the case, ordering a federal judge in Greensboro court to hold a hearing on Barnes' claim.
     "The MAR [Motion for Appropriate Relief] Court greatly distorted Barnes' burden, requiring much more of Barnes than a threshold or minimal showing of potential juror bias," Stephanie Thacker wrote for the majority. "Even though Barnes alleged that Juror [Hollie] Jordan called Pastor [Tom] Lomax and discussed the death penalty with him while Juror Jordan was considering whether Barnes and his co-defendants would live or die, the court did not consider this conversation as involving ''extraneous information' ... or deal[ing] with the fairness and impartiality of the juror.' In essence, the MAR Court demanded proof of a Sixth Amendment violation - that is, proof of juror bias - before Barnes was entitled to any relief."
     The Richmond, Va.-based federal appeals court rejected the notion that statement by defense counsel at closing arguments about God's condemnation was not an issue properly before the jury.
     "To the extent that a juror had a conversation with a third party about the spiritual or moral implications of making this decision, the communication 'was of such a character as to reasonably draw into question the integrity of the verdict,'" the 53-page opinion states.
     Judge Steven Agee dissented, finding that North Carolina state courts could reasonably have concluded that Barnes was not prejudiced by the juror's actions.
     "If this case was before the court on a direct appeal, a different analysis would be required to determine whether Barnes could be entitled to any relief under Remmer," Agee wrote, citing the 1954 decision Remmer v. U.S. "But that is not the posture of the case before the court."