The Alabama Supreme Court today reversed Jerry Jerome Smith’s death sentence after finding that he was illegally sentenced because jurors had been unfairly influenced by improper contacts and interactions with members of the victim’s family.
Jerry Jerome Smith was convicted of capital murder for his involvement in a drug-related homicide. Mr. Smith is mentally disabled and was raised by mentally ill, alcoholic parents who severely beat him as a child. At the sentencing phase of Mr. Smith’s first trial, his lawyers attempted to present mitigating evidence to show that he did not deserve the death penalty but the trial judge prevented them from doing so. After being sentenced to death, EJI appealed the case argued that it was unfair to prevent him from presenting evidence in support of a life sentence. The Alabama Supreme Court agreed, reversed Mr. Smith’s death sentence, and ordered a new sentencing trial.
At Mr. Smith’s new sentencing trial, members of the victim’s family arrived at the courthouse and rather than seating themselves in the courtroom, assembled among potential jurors, talking to them about the case, and creating an appearance that they too were members of the venire. When jury questioning began, these two family members entered the courtroom with the potential jurors and sat with them during questioning. About a half-hour later, one family member began repeating aloud, “he needs to die, he took my son’s life.” Over twenty potential jurors heard these statements, five of whom eventually sat on Mr. Smith’s jury. Mr. Smith was again sentenced to death.
EJI again represented Mr. Smith on appeal and argued that his second trial was unfair because jurors were unable to fairly evaluate the proper sentence for Mr. Smith after having prejudicial contact with the victim’s family. Today, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed and, for the second time, reversed Mr. Smith’s sentence and ordered a new sentencing hearing. The court found that the “personal contact with and comments to the jury by [the victim’s] relatives was inherently prejudicial to Smith . . . .”
EJI also argued that Mr. Smith’s trial was tainted by the prosecutor’s racially discriminatory jury selection. During the jury selection process, the prosecutor targeted minority jurors for questioning and then used all twelve of his peremptory strikes to remove every minority veniremember. As a result, Mr. Smith, an African-American male, was tried by an all-white jury in a county whose population is 25% African-American. The Alabama Supreme Court found that it was unnecessary to address this issue in today’s opinion because it granted Mr. Smith a new sentencing trial based on the jury being exposed to members of the victim’s family.