Sixth Circuit Splits on Juror’s Ex Parte Communication

Today, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected death row inmate Bobby Shepherd’s appeal of the district court’s denial of his petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Shepherd v. Bagley. Among Shepherd’s claims was that his trial was constitutionally defective because one of the jurors had consulted a psychologist during the penalty phase of the trial to understand what “paranoid schizophrenia” means. This was potentially relevant because the defense had argued (unsuccessfully) that Shepherd’s paranoid schizophrenia was a mitigating factor that should weigh against imposition of the death penalty. The juror maintained that this conversation did not affect his or the jury’s deliberations, however, and the trial court concluded there was no prejudice and sentenced Shepherd to death.

One of the issues dividing the Sixth Circuit panel was whether the trial court properly handled the juror’s improper conduct and, specifically, whether the prosecution or the defense should bear the burden of proof in such a situation. Judge Kethledge, writing for the court joined by Chief Judge Batchelder (who also wrote a separate concurrence addressing this issue), concluded that the burden was on the defense to prove prejudice. Judge Merritt, in dissent, forcefully argued the burden must rest on the prosecution.

Judge Merritt argued that the burden was on the proscecution to prove that the juror’s conversation with the psychologist was not prejudicial, and that this burden was never met.  In support of his position, Judge Merritt cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227, 229 (1954), in which the Court held that ex parte communications with jurors are “presumptively prejudicial. The majority, on the hand, concluded that Remmer had been abrogated by subsequent decisions, including Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209, 215-17 (1982), a point Chief Judge Batchelder stressed in her concurrence.

I don’t know the case law in this area to know which side offers the better interpretation of the Supreme Court’s precedent or how such ex parte communications should be handled. The dissent notes that the majority of Circuit’s reject the view that Smith abrogated Remmer, and the majority of circuits may be right. Only one circuit disagrees — but therein lies the problem for Judge Merritt’s argument. As he acknowledges in footnote 1 of his opinion, that one circuit is the Sixth. The circuit concluded Smith abrogated Remmer in United States v. Pennell, 737 F.2d 521 (6th Cir. 1984). Moreover, as Judge Batchelder notes, the Sixth Circuit has followed this holding since. Therefore, even if Judge Merritt offers what is ultimately the better argument, the panel was bound to conclude otherwise, as this is the law of the circuit unless and until the question is revisited en banc or reaches the Supreme Court.