ATLANTA—There seems to be little question that Marcus Wellons, in 1989, abducted 15-year-old India Roberts as she was walking to her school bus, dragged her into a nearby apartment building, sliced up her face and ear, then raped and strangled her and dumped her nude body. Indeed, despite Wellons' defense that his father had abused him as a boy and that his childhood was "a living hell," the jury took just one hour to convict him.
Still, the trial lasted two weeks, and the 12 jurors and two alternates were sequestered for its duration, with the state putting them up at a local Sheraton, which several jurors later described as "difficult," and the trial itself as "sobering," according to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).
They also sentenced Wellons to death for his crime, opting not to take the only other choice available to them under the law, life in prison, even though, according to juror Lynne Henry, "No one, absolutely no one, liked the idea of a death penalty." But at that time, Georgia did not have the punishment "life without possibility of parole," so the jurors had to choose between two imperfect options.
But it isn't the verdict itself that's raised questions important enough for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. It was what happened afterwards: One of the jurors presented Judge Mary Staley with a gift box containing a white chocolate penis, and also allegedly gave a similar gift—chocolate breasts—to bailiff Loretta Perry, who later denied receiving the gift.
"From beginning to end, judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect," wrote the Supreme Court in a per curiam (unsigned majority) ruling. "The disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial."
The AJC felt there were questions to be answered as well, and undertook an investigation of its own, contacting and interviewing Staley, Perry and most of the jurors in the case to find out just what happened. Wellons' own attorneys had tried to obtain sworn statements from several jurors in 1997, but were rebuffed by a local judge at the instance of the state Attorney General's office.
According to the AJC article, the gifts were the idea of juror Mary Jo Hooper, who during the course of the trial asked a friend who ran a candy store to send her two dozen homemade chocolate turtles to share with her fellow jurors and court personnel. But the friend, as a joke, also included a white chocolate penis, which Hooper claimed embarrassed her.
While it's unclear how Hooper was able to communicate with her confectioner friend while the jury was sequestered and theoretically completely out of contact with family and acquaintances in the outside world, Perry nonetheless received the box, noted its contents—Perry claims there were no chocolate breasts in the package—and then passed it along to Hooper.
However, the ACJ reported that a day or so later, Perry told Hooper that Judge Staley had "expressed interest in the gift and wanted to see it after the trial." So after Wellons' sentence had been pronounced and jurors were milling around the courtroom preparing to go home, Hooper "discreetly took the candy from her purse and handed it to [Staley], saying, 'This is the item you asked to see after the trial. Don't open it here.'"
For her part, Staley claimes that she threw the gift away immediately, but court reporter Brenda Rolfe claims to have seen Staley carrying the box that had contained the cock, and reported that the judge had said that she was going to "take it home to her husband"—a statement which Staley denies making.
"It went into the garbage," said Staley, who attributed Rolfe's statement to a vendetta over the judge's having fired her. (Rolfe later lost a federal discrimination suit against the judge.)
But the Supreme Court majority thought the controversy over the cock candy was important enough to order the Eleventh Circuit, which had previously turned down Wellons' appeal, to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine if the gift was evidence of any collusion between the judge and the jurors regarding the death penalty verdict, or reflected any bias of the jurors in favor of the government.
That decision didn't sit well with the four dissenters to the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
"The power to 'revise and correct for error,' which the Court has already turned into 'a power to void for suspicion,' has now become the power to send back for a re-do," Scalia wrote for himself and Thomas. "We have no authority to decree that. If the Court thinks that the Eleventh Circuit's merits holding is wrong, then it should summarily reverse or set the case for argument; otherwise, the judgment below must stand. ... An appropriately self-respecting response to today’s summary vacatur would be summary reissuance of the same opinion." [Citations removed here and below]
"With respect to the gifts that were given to the judge and a bailiff after the trial ended, the District Court stressed that they were 'inappropriate' and represented 'an unusual display of poor taste in the context of a proceeding so grave as a capital trial,'" Alito noted in his dissent, joined by the Chief Justice, "but the Court noted that petitioner had not proffered any evidence that any of the jurors or court personnel who were interviewed had said anything that substantiated the assertion that 'an inappropriate relationship existed between the judge, the bailiff, and the jury'... I agree with the Court that the strange and tasteless gifts that were given to the trial judge and bailiff are facially troubling, and I am certainly not prepared at this point to say that the decision below on the discovery issue was correct. But unlike the Court, I do not think it is proper for us to use a GVR [remand] to address this matter."
For her part, Judge Staley called the supreme Court's decision "elitist and superior."
"Juries have the 'common sense of the ordinary man,'" she told AJC reporters Bill Torpey and Bill Rankin. "Though they may be a 'little crude' on occasion, 'does that mean they weren’t honest in their work?' she asked."
At this point, the answer to that question will be up to an Eleventh Circuit panel.
(Image courtesy of kinkykandies.com)