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Black man wins new trial against Confederate memorabilia in jury room

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The picturesque jury room at the Giles County courthouse in Tennessee had a giant window with a towering library, but it had another striking detail: a portrait of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, in a gold frame, as well as other Confederate memorabilia. .

A Tennessee appeals court on Friday ruled unanimously that a black man convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated assault and other charges should face a new trial, saying prosecutors have rejected a defense attorney’s claim that the chamber where the jury deliberated could not refute was detrimental to the man, Tim Gilbert.

The decision was made amid a wider rethinking of the racist and Southern symbols that have graced city squares, colleges and courthouses across the United States for generations. It also comes amid increased awareness about racial bias seeping into the criminal justice system.

Mr Gilbert, 56, who was arrested in 2018, and his attorney argued that the fact that both the grand jury and the trial jury deliberated in the “inherently biased” chamber — which was named after the United Daughters of the Confederacy – violated his right. to a fair trial, an impartial jury, a fair trial and equal protection, according to court documents.

The appeals court of three judges agreed and reversed a 2020 lower court ruling rejecting Mr Gilbert’s request for a new trial. The appeals court’s 31-page ruling discussed the power of symbols, especially flags, to convey messages about a government’s identity and values.

“The flag displayed in the jury room is no different,” the court ruled. “Its original purpose was to tie ‘the loyalty’ of those in the Confederate states ‘to a flag’ that conveyed the political ideals of the Confederacy.”

The ruling explored the ideals of the Confederacy by examining documents prepared at the time of the rebel government’s establishment. Articles of secession identified the reasons behind the Confederate states’ decision to leave the union, the ruling said, and viewed the right to enslave black people as central to Southern life.

“These documents not only defended slavery, but fully endorsed it using dehumanizing and racist language,” the court wrote, adding that slavery and the subjugation of black people are “inseparable from the Confederacy and its symbols.”

“However, such ideals contradict the US system of jurisprudence and cannot be tolerated,” it said.

Valena Beety, a law professor and deputy director of the Academy of Justice at Arizona State University, said courts were now more aware of how bias could be introduced into the criminal justice system and that they were eager to eradicate it.

“One way to do that is to make sure you have more diverse juries,” she said. “But this seems like a different way where you really look at the influence of this memorabilia that surrounds you all the time you’re deliberating on this matter.”

She added, “Symbols can allow us to be complacent or comfortable with our own biases rather than challenging, recognizing and really thinking about them.”

It was unclear Saturday whether prosecutors would appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court. They did not immediately respond to messages.

Gilbert’s attorney, Evan Baddour, turned down an interview request. He said in a text that he was happy with the ruling, but that “there is still a lot of work to be done and we will continue to fight.”

The appeals court ruling focused primarily on the Confederate memorabilia in the jury room. Prosecutors said Mr Gilbert was waiving his right to object by not raising the matter for trial, but the appeals court said in its ruling that “the location of jury deliberations is not one of the issues that should be addressed prior to the trial.”

Arguing that the items in the chamber do not improperly influence the jurors, the prosecutors also said another jury had deliberated in an unrelated case in the same chamber and acquitted Mr. Gilbert.

“The fact that the defendant has been acquitted of unrelated charges by another jury has absolutely no bearing on whether the jury in this case was exposed to outside adverse information or undue influence from outside,” the appeals ruling said.

Michael Working, who chaired the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers when the group filed a memorandum in support of Mr. Gilbert’s position, said the ruling burdened the government with proving the deliberation chamber was free of coercion and influence, not to the defendant to prove that it was not so.

“That’s a big step,” he said.

He said the implications of this ruling could extend beyond jury deliberations. He wondered about the Confederate statues greeting visitors in Tennessee courthouses and the messages they conveyed.

“Now the issue can focus on, how far is that sphere of influence?” he said.

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