Supreme Court Underscores the Need for "Dignity and Respect" in Capital Cases--Reverses Judgment

On January 19, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Wellons v. Hall, ordering the lower court to re-examine the appeal of Marcus Wellons, who received the death penalty for a 1989 rape and murder in Georgia. The Court's per curiam opinion described "unusual events going on behind the scenes" at Wellons' trial, including contacts outside the courtroom between the jury and the judge, and the fact that some jury members gave the trial judge and bailiff provocative gifts. The Supreme Court rejected the 11th Circuit's opinion that Wellons's claims of misconduct were merely speculation.  The Court's opinion stated, "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. 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." (emphasis added).

Two dissenting opinions were filed (Chief Justice Roberts, Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas), stating that more deference should have been given to the state court which found no prejudice from the gifts, and to the Court of Appeals, which examined the issue.

(R. Barnes, "Supreme Court mandates 'dignity and respect' in death sentencing," Washington Post, January 20, 2010; Wellons v. Hall, 558 U. S.__, No. 09–5731 (Jan. 19, 2010) (vacating the judgment and remanding to 11th Cir. for further consideration in light of Cone v. Bell)).  Click here for more U.S. Supreme Court decisions.