The United States Supreme Court on January 19, 2010, issued a decision in Wellons v. Hall, a Georgia death-penalty case in which jurors gave the trial judge and bailiff sexually suggestive gifts during Mr. Wellons’s trial for rape and murder. The Court wrote: “The disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial, and this petition raises a serious question about whether the Court of Appeals carefully reviewed those facts before addressing petitioner’s constitutional claims.”
After Mr. Wellons’s trial, his defense lawyer learned about unreported contacts between the jury and the judge, that jurors and a bailiff had planned a reunion, and that during or immediately following the penalty phase, some jurors gave the trial judge chocolate shaped as male genitalia and the bailiff chocolate shaped as female breasts – “gifts” which the judge did not report to defense counsel.
Mr. Wellons tried to learn more about this misconduct, but got caught in what the Court called “a procedural morass” that led to the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling that it could not review the merits of the claim because of technical procedural rules.
The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit and held that Mr. Wellons is entitled to have a federal court review the evidence of very disturbing conduct in his case.
The order highlights the procedural hurdles that often trap capital defendants and prevent them from obtaining merits review of valid constitutional claims. It also underscores the importance of fair and reliable appellate review, “especially . . . in a case in which petitioner’s allegations and the unusual facts raise a serious question about the fairness of a capital trial.”