(CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court ordered an Atlanta appeals court to reconsider a convicted murderer’s bid for a new trial, because the jury’s gift of sexually explicit chocolates to court officials may constitute improper contact.
Marcus Wellons was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of a 15-year-old Atlanta girl by a Georgia state court.
After the 1993 conviction, Wellons’ attorney discovered that the jury had given penis-shaped chocolates to the trial judge and female breast-shaped chocolates to the bailiff either during the jury’s sentencing deliberations or immediately after. The jurors and bailiff also planned a reunion.
Wellons said the gifts entitled him to a new trial, but the district court denied relief, saying his claims were procedurally barred. The 11th Circuit affirmed.
In the 5-4 ruling, the high court ordered the federal appeals court to reconsider whether Wellons is entitled to an evidentiary hearing. The Supreme Court upheld the denial of habeas relief, but said his request for a hearing to look at relationship between jurors and court officials might be valid.
“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 ruling states.
Dissenting justices said the ruling was an improper use of the court’s power to grant certiorari, vacate judgment and remand the case, called a “GVR.”
In their dissenting opinion, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the court does not have a basis for remanding the case, as the appeals court already concluded that a hearing wasn’t warranted. The ruling is part of “the systematic degradation of our traditional requirements for a GVR,” Scalia wrote, a trend making it easier to remand cases after its April 2009 decision in Cone v. Bell. That decision broadened the qualifications for federal review of state criminal cases.
“The power to ‘revise and correct for error,’ which the court has already turned into ‘a power to void for suspicion,’ has now become the power to send back for a redo,” Scalia wrote. He said the ruling gives the lower court the impression that “we were schoolmasters grading their homework.”
Scalia called the ruling a “delay of justice,” since Wellons committed the murder 20 years ago.
Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts also dissented on the basis of misuse of remand practice.
“[T]here is no basis for vacating the decision unless there is reason to reconsider based on the merits of the case,” Alito wrote.
Though Alito said he agreed that “the strange and tasteless gifts that were given to the trial judge and bailiff are facially troubling,” he said the high court should not use its power to remand to address the matter. In this case, Alito said the court is “using the GVR as a vehicle for urging the court of appeals to reconsider its holding on a question that is entirely independent of the ground for the GVR.”
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined the unsigned majority opinion.