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Dissenting justices balk at order to study juror bias

Joined by two fellow conservatives, Justice Clarence Thomas said the case follows a pattern in which the Sixth Circuit disregards the legal requirements for death penalty convictions. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Clarence Thomas berated the Sixth Circuit in a dissenting opinion on Monday for giving a death row inmate room to challenge his conviction based on a biased juror. 

Joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch in his rebuke, Thomas claims the Sixth Circuit has flouted high court precedent by continually granting relief to death row prisoners in violation of the law. 

Thomas’ dissent came in a dispute over jurors who convicted Jeronique Cunningham of murdering three people — including a 3-year-old girl — during a drug deal gone wrong. Intending to rob a man who had sold him crack cocaine previously, Cunningham and his half-brother entered the apartment of Shane Liles.

Liles was not alone, however, so they ordered the group consisting of the man' girlfriend and other family and friends to hand over their valuables. When Liles said he had nothing left to give the men, they began shooting into the group, hitting all eight victims. A teenager and 3-year-old were killed in the shooting, and others were left with severe wounds including one lost eye. 

A jury convicted Cunningham of aggravated murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced him to death. His convictions were affirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court. 

Cunningham later challenged his conviction, however, based on the perceived bias of the jury foreperson in his trial. An investigator working with his half-brother’s trial team interviewed several jurors and found that the foreperson in Cunningham’s jury thought he was an evil person and knew of his history with social workers who were afraid of him. Cunningham claims the juror had worked at Allen County Children Services and was able to obtain prejudicial information about him from her colleagues. 

Both the trial court and the Ohio Court of Appeals dismissed Cunningham’s claims. In 2006, however, the district court allowed Cunningham to investigate his claims under a habeas petition. After a long investigation including the deposition of multiple jurors, the district court ultimately dismissed Cunningham’s claims in 2019. 

Two years later, the Sixth Circuit would revive the case in a divided opinion. Ohio in turn petitioned the high court, but the majority of justices declined Monday to hear the case. Its rejection was one of dozens in the morning order list

Thomas wrote in dissent that the Sixth Circuit made clear errors in its judgment, and Cunningham’s juror bias claims should not have been entertained. By refusing to correct those errors, Thomas said the high court “permits the nullification of its jurisprudence."

“Although the procedural history of this case is complicated, the Sixth Circuit’s errors were not,” the Bush appointee wrote. “The panel majority’s reasons for ordering an evidentiary hearing on either of Cunningham’s juror-bias claims are indefensible.” 

The Sixth Circuit's error, according to Thomas, comes from a violation of the standard for relief set out by the federal law that governs relief for death penalty prisoners, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

“We should not shirk our responsibility to correct classic AEDPA abuses, especially when a lower court brazenly commits errors for which we have repeatedly reversed it,” Thomas wrote. 

While Thomas chastised the high court for forming a new tolerance for repeat offenders, his ire is mostly directed at the Sixth Circuit. 

“While I disagree with the Court’s newfound tolerance for recidivism, primary responsibility for the Sixth Circuit’s errors rests with the Sixth Circuit,” Thomas wrote. “That court’s record of ‘plain and repetitive’ AEDPA error is an insult to Congress and a disservice to the people of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.” 

Thomas said the regularity in which the court receives petitions from the Sixth Circuit on this issue shows that the judges on that circuit like to disregard the law. 

“The Sixth Circuit must do better, with or without this Court’s help,” Thomas wrote. “Unfortunately, the Sixth Circuit’s habeas jurisprudence suggests that certain circuit judges’ ‘taste for disregarding AEDPA’ has found its natural complement in other judges’ distaste for correcting errors en banc, no matter how blatant, repetitive, or corrosive of circuit law.” 

Cunningham was represented in his opposition brief by Michael Benza and Karl Schwartz.

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