On Friday, the Alabama Supreme Court held that death row inmate James Harrison has a right to have a judge consider his claim that jurors engaged in misconduct at his capital murder trial. The case was sent back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing.
During jury selection for Mr. Harrison’s trial, two jurors did not answer accurately a number of important questions about whether they had served on a jury previously, been a victim of a crime, been convicted of a crime, or dealt with the district attorney’s office. By failing to answer accurately, the jurors deprived Mr. Harrison of his right to a fair jury selection process and to a fair and impartial jury.
Mr. Harrison raised these claims in a timely postconviction petition, but the trial judge ruled that the claims should have been raised earlier and refused to consider them. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed.
In 2008, the Alabama Supreme Court decided in Ex parte Burgess that defendants do not have to raise a juror misconduct claim until they have evidence that a juror did not respond accurately at trial. The court reasoned that defendants have a right to rely on jurors to give truthful answers and do not have to “embark on a broad-ranging fishing expedition” at the end of trial to uncover any possible juror misconduct if they have no reason to think misconduct occurred.
In Mr. Harrison’s case, the Alabama Supreme Court held that he had no reason to think jurors were untruthful during jury selection, and therefore the trial judge should have considered his claim. The court sent the case back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing.
Mr. Harrison’s case is being handled pro bono by a team of lawyers headed by Lisa Borden at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., in Birmingham.