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Child Porn Conviction Reversed for Failure to Examine Jury Bias

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on October 27, 2014 7:22 PM

In June, Cameron Bates, a former Florida sheriff's deputy, was convicted of possessing child pornography. But Bates also had sexual relationships with adult men, and he figured this information would be used at trial (which it was). Bates tried to head the problem off during voir dire by seeking to exclude potential jurors who were prejudiced against men who had sex with men.

The trial court denied the request. As expected, evidence of Bates' sexual relationships with adult men "was repeatedly paraded before the jury, over several objections from Mr. Bates." He was convicted of all counts.

What's Sexual Orientation Got to Do With It?

On direct appeal, Bates said the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to exclude jurors prejudiced against men who had sex with men. And guess what? A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit agreed with him in a (surprisingly) unpublished opinion.

While the district court, in denying Bates' request, "optimistically declared that our society is beyond prejudice on the basis of a person's sexual orientation," the Eleventh Circuit wasn't so convinced.

Wait -- why the heck was Bates' sexuality in question if the case was about child pornography? The prosecution explained that it wanted to show "pictures and items from the defendant's computer [to] show that he was engaged in homosexual activity[,] ... which goes to show that he wouldn't be sharing his computer with other people."

So if that's his theory of the case, then "facts about his sexual activities were inextricably bound up with a central element of the charges against him," meaning the trial court was required to ensure the jury wasn't biased against homosexual activity. But the Eleventh Circuit also hinted that questions about Bates' homosexuality were introduced for more than showing a lack of mistake: The government asked one witness about Bates' preferred sexual positions and whether any of his male lovers ever "had [his] wife join in." While the court wasn't ruling on these evidentiary issues, it did take time out in a footnote to call attention to "the inflammatory and insensitive way the government framed many of its questions."

Dissent: He's So Guilty It Doesn't Matter

Judge Robert Hinkle dissented, saying there was no problem here. Hinkle claimed that Bates wasn't specific enough in his objections to the judge regarding voir dire, and there wasn't any evidence of actual bias on the part of the jurors (which is an odd conclusion to draw, as no jurors were ever asked any questions about such bias -- which is the whole point of this appeal).

And even if there were issues of prejudice, Hinkle said, evidence of Bates' guilt was so strong that the error was necessarily harmless.

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