U.S. Supreme Court decisions are often perplexing; sometimes impossible to understand, much less rationalize.
That was the case when the Court on April 12, 2016 refused to block the execution of Kenneth Fults by the State of Georgia.
Kenneth Fults Executed
Four hours after the Court’s ruling, the condemned man was pronounced dead. Mr. Fults was killed fifteen minutes after a dose of lethal drugs were sent coursing into his body through an IV put in place by prison personnel; another state sanctioned homicide.
Fults died alone. Not one friend or family member appeared in the death chamber to offer support or say their goodbyes.
Fults was a killer, make no mistake about that. He pled guilty to the January 1996 murder of Cathy Bounds, a trailer park neighbor.
Condemned Man Pled Guilty to a Horrible Crime
It was a terrible crime.
Fults entered the trailer Bounds shared with a live-in boyfriend with an intent to burglarize it. He knew Bounds was present in the trailer when he entered it. He wrapped tape around her eyes before taking her into a bedroom where he forced her face into a mattress. Despite Bounds’ pleas that not kill her, Fults shot her five times in the back of the head.
The police found evidence from other burglaries Fults had committed in the trailer park during the preceding weeks, as well as the murder weapon used to kill Bounds, under his trailer. Guilt, therefore, was never an issue in the case.
A Spalding County criminal district court appointed public defender Johnny Mostiler to represent Fults.
Performance of Public Defender Substandard
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Mostiler “routinely fell asleep” while representing Fults during a May 1997 punishment hearing.
Worst yet, the public defender had a “cozy relationship with county prosecutors” which helped him in dealing with an “overwhelming caseload” through prosecution-friendly plea deals.
Even worse, Mostiler was a racist.
While representing a black man in 1991 who was charged with a double-homicide, the public defender turned down a plea bargain that would have saved Curtis Osborne’s life, according to a 2008 Time Magazine report. He did this without ever informing Osborne who was executed in 2008. One of Mostiler’s former white clients recounted for the Time report that the public defender told him “that little nigger (Osborne) deserved the chair.”
Racist Defense Counsel and Juror
Not only did Fults have a racist attorney defending him, he had at least one racist juror who wanted to see him executed because he was black.
After his appeals and the death of Mostiler (who died while Fults’ direct appeal was pending), the condemned inmate got a new set of attorneys. They launched an investigation into the background of the case. As part of that investigation, an investigator spoke to one of Fults’ jurors named Thomas Buffington.
In 2005, the 79-year-old Buffington signed a sworn affidavit for Fults’ defense team that said:
“I don’t know if [Fults] ever killed anybody, but that nigger got just what just should have happened. Once he pled guilty, I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that’s what that nigger deserved.”
Juror Racial Bias
According to a The Atlantic recent report, two other Fults jurors, upon learning about what Buffington said in the 2005 affidavit, stated they were “deeply troubled” by the comments because it demonstrated that Buffington “considered Mr. Fults to be less than a human being” and, therefore, he should not have been allowed to “sit in judgment of others.”
These juror sentiments are particularly significant because prior to being selected as a juror in the Fults case, Buffington misled the judge by stating he held “no racial biases.”
And this brings us back to the befuddling decision by the Supreme Court in the Fults case.
SCOTUS Will Hear “No Impeachment” Case
On April 4, in another case, the Court agreed to hear a challenge to the historical “no impeachment” rule (a rule that prohibits the introduction of juror testimony regarding statements made during deliberations when offered to challenge the jury’s verdict) that would allow a defendant to offer evidence of racial bias to prove a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
The case, Pena-Rodriquez v. Colorado, concerns racist remarks made by several jurors about the defendant and his alibi witnesses because they were Hispanic.
An en banc opinion by the Colorado Supreme Court on May 18, 2015 had upheld the no-impeachment rule. The state court ruled that the “privacy of jury deliberations [must remain] sacrosanct.” The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case and arguments which were similar to those made in the Fultz case.
Whether the Supreme Court agrees with the Colorado Supreme Court has not yet been determined.
Racist Remarks of Jurors Could Lead to New Trial, Rehearing
By accepting the Pena-Rodriguez case for review, the Court believes that racist remarks made by jurors during deliberations deserve constitutional scrutiny.
The Court may well ultimately hold that racist remarks made by jurors either during jury deliberations or in post-conviction affidavits like the one given by Thomas Buffington cannot be used to support a Sixth Amendment violation of the right to an impartial trial.
In other words, the Court could uphold the sweeping “no impeachment” rule. However, the Court could also hold racist attitudes expressed during deliberations support a claim of a Constitutional violation.
Court Should Have Stayed Fultz Execution
The fact that the Court agreed to hear Pena-Rodriguez and this Sixth Amendment issue should have been enough to warrant a stay in the Fults case.
And what we find particularly disturbing is the fact that there was not a single stated dissent by any of the Supreme Court justices about letting Fults’ execution go forward.
So Fults was executed.
He had a racist lawyer and at least one racist juror who obviously believed black defendants should be given the death sentence based on the color of their skin.
The execution was indeed “tainted” by racism, as The Atlantic said.
And for this reason alone, we cannot get our heads to wrap around the Court’s refusal to halt the execution.