NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two Black men who challenged their criminal convictions after jurors deliberated in a Tennessee courthouse room containing Confederate symbols have received opposite rulings from different judges on the same appeals court.
One was granted a new trial. The other was denied.
The conflicting decisions likely mean the matter will be appealed up to the state Supreme Court to sort out the discrepancy.
The rulings from two three-judge panels of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals center on trials held at the Giles County Courthouse, putting jurors in a room adorned with items maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, including an antique Confederate flag and portraits of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. John C. Brown. In June, a state commission approved plans to move the artifacts to a museum, The Tennessean reported.
This week, a panel of judges ruled unanimously against a new trial for Barry Jamal Martin, who went to trial in February 2020, was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The ruling says that none of the jurors testified to “even noticing or being aware that the memorabilia was in the room." The decision also questioned whether an average person would be able to recognize who was in the portraits or what the flag meant.
“While we certainly do not condone the presence of the memorabilia in the jury room, we conclude that the Defendant failed to show that any specific extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention or improperly brought to bear upon any juror (or grand juror),” Judge John Campbell Sr. wrote in the ruling.
Last December, three other judges from the court ruled unanimously that Tim Gilbert deserved a new trial for charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, unlawful possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and resisting arrest. His trial took place in March 2020 and he had been sentenced to six years in prison. The Tennessee Supreme Court declined to take up the state's appeal in that case.
“Because Giles County may not convey any message to the jury, we conclude that permitting the jury to deliberate in a room filled with Confederate memorabilia exposed the jury to extraneous information or improper outside influence,” Judge James Curwood Witt Jr. wrote in December.
In this week's ruling, however, the judicial panel reasoned that the previous decision was not the kind that creates precedent that the judges had to follow.
The same attorney, Evan P. Baddour, has represented both Martin and Gilbert.
The two cases included various other arguments by their attorneys against their convictions. In Gilbert's case, the judicial panel ruled that a new trial was also needed because the trial court made a mistake by allowing a challenged witness statement.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy were first allowed to put their initials, U.D.C., on the room’s door in 1909 after helping to furnish the room with tables, chairs and other items following a fire at the courthouse, the local grand jury’s foreman at the time previously testified in court.
The Giles County Courthouse is in Pulaski, where the Ku Klux Klan was founded.