A tacky joke between a judge and jurors in a murder trial isn't necessarily evidence of an unfair trial.
Jurors in Marcus Wellons' malice, murder, and rape trial sent a chocolate penis to the judge and chocolate breasts to the bailiff — gag gifts that were intended to "lighten things up." The jury later convicted Wellons and recommended the death sentence.
Wellons argued that the gifts denied him of his constitutional right to a fair trial by an impartial jury and judge. The Supreme Court conceded that the matter warranted a second look. Last week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the gifts were tacky, but the conviction was untainted.
During the trial, Wellons never disputed that he raped and murdered 15-year-old India Roberts; instead, he claimed he was either not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. Wellons did not present any mental health expert testimony during the trial.
Wellons' attorney learned about the anatomical chocolates -- and a conversation between the judge and the sequestered jurors at a restaurant -- during post-trial juror interviews. Relying on this information, Wellons moved for a new trial and recusal of the judge.
Following the Supreme Court remand in 2010, the Eleventh Circuit asked the district court to conduct discovery to determine whether the contact between the judge, jurors, and bailiff resulted in an unfair trial.
Based on the district court's findings, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that Wellons received a fair trial by an impartial jury because the gifts -- while "tasteless and inappropriate" -- didn't affect the judge's or jury's consideration, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
The court, however, warned that jurors shouldn't send gifts to the court staff during a trial, stating, "We do not condone the acceptance of gifts, de minimus though they may be, by judges or bailiffs during any trial -- criminal or civil. Nor do we condone the giving of gifts by the jury to the presiding judge or bailiff during any trial. Trial judges are expected to properly handle these situations, sternly admonish or discipline those involved, and disclose such occurrences to each party so that timely objections can be considered and made."
Due process requires "a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it, and a trial judge ever watchful to prevent prejudicial occurrences and to determine the effect of such occurrences when they happen." Here, the appellate court concluded that -- despite the gag gifts -- both jury and the judge remained impartial and unbiased throughout the trial.
- Wellons v. Warden (Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Chocolate Penis Pokes a Hole in a Death Penalty Case (Above the Law)
- Trial of Michael Jackson's Doctor: Impartial Jury Elusive (FindLaw's Celebrity Justice)