A federal appeals court has reversed a North Carolina death sentence based on a trial juror’s improper consultation with her pastor about whether she could impose a death sentence without running afoul of her religion, then shared his guidance to the entire jury.
William Leroy Barnes has been on North Carolina’s death row 26 years, but the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals previously ordered an inquiry into his claim of juror misconduct.
As a result of that investigation, the appeals court on September 12, granted Barnes’ request to overturn his capital sentence and order a new sentencing trial.
Prior appeals in both state court and in federal habeas hearings had found the jury conduct harmless and refused to upset the death sentence.
During closing arguments in the 1994 trial of Barnes and two co-defendants, a lawyer for a co-defendant made religiously charged statements that a juror’s choice to impose a death sentence would violate one of the ten commandment – thou shalt not kill.
Jurors recommended death for Barnes a day later.
Following the religiously charged choosing argument, juror Hollie Jordan consulted with her pastor on the first night of deliberations to know if she would “burn in hell” for voting for the death penalty, according to the court. She also knew another juror was upset by the religious prohibition.
The pastor said she should follow the state’s laws, according to the court.
“Juror Jordan, a devoutly religious individual, was struck by an attorney’s assertion that she would go to hell if she voted to impose the death penalty,” Judge Henry Floyd wrote for the panel. “Se approached her pastor and spiritual guide in the middle of jury deliberations to obtain clarity on that very subject, and he assured her that, contrary to the attorney’s arguments, her religious beliefs permitted her to vote for the death penalty.”
“Aware that other jurors had been troubled by the attorney’s remarks, she spent up to 30 minutes discussing her past6or’s counsel with the entire jury and reading several Bible verses that he had suggest out loud,” Floyd wrote.
“We hold that juror Jordan’s external communication was not harmless,” wrote Floyd. “We reverse and remand the district court’s denial of habeas relief.”
He was joined by Judges Steven Agee and Stephenie Thacker.
Case: Barnes v. Thomas, No. 18-005