On January 19, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 per curiam decision in Wellons v. Hall, No. 09-5731.
Marcus Wellons was convicted of rape and murder in the state courts of Georgia and sentenced to death. After the trial was completed, his lawyer learned that there had been unreported ex parte communications during the trial between the judge and the jury, that the jury and the bailiff were planning a "reunion," and that either during or immediately after the penalty phase the jurors had sent the judge and bailiff erotically shaped chocolates.
Wellons's attempt to raise these potential improprieties on direct appeal were rebuffed because of the lack of a record, and his attempts to raise them via state and federal habeas corpus petitions were rejected on grounds of res judicata because they supposedly had been resolved in the direct appeal. The federal courts also rejected his request for an evidentiary hearing on the matter.
In Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. ___, 129 U.S. 1769 (2009), the Supreme Court held that a state court's refusal to review the merits of a petitioner's claim on the ground that it has already done so is not a bar to federal habeas corpus relief. Because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit had denied Wellons's request for habeas relief on res judicata grounds, contrary to Cone, the Court granted his petition for certiorari, vacated the court of appeals' judgment, and remanded.
The Court observed that "judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect," and it noted that the "disturbing facts" about the contacts between the jury and court personnel during the trial raised "serious questions" about the conduct of the trial that the court of appeals appeared not to have fully considered. The Court suggested that the court of appeals' refusal to order an evidentiary hearing to determine the facts about the alleged improprieties at trial may also have been affected by that court's erroneous view of the issue decided in Cone, and it strongly implied, although it did not order, that such a hearing should be granted.
The Court's per curiam opinion was joined by Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor. Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion in which Chief Justice Roberts joined.