Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Extraordinary" Pretrial Publicity No Barrier to Death Sentence

The Sixth Circuit (Merritt, Martin, and Rogers, Circuit Judges) seemed reluctant in its affirmance of Cleveland Jackson's death sentence today, stating "Based on Supreme Court precedent, we are required to affirm."

On January 3, 2002, Jackson and his half-brother, Jeronique Cunningham, shot and killed two children, including a three-year-old girl, during a house robbery. Ohio sentenced Jackson to two separate death sentences -- one for each child. Throughout Jackson's post-conviction proceedings in Ohio, Jackson raised numerous claims concerning the jury voir dire process -- one of which was ultimately successful, and had one of his two death sentences overturned.

The Sixth Circuit focused on Jackson's claims concerning extensive pre-trial publicity. The town where the muders took place -- Lima, Ohio -- was a small, close community. The local newspaper consistently identified Jackson and Cunningham as the sole suspects in the case starting three days after the murder. Every step of the legal proceeding against them was chronicled. Jackson had to wear a bullet-proof vest to his preliminary hearing because tensions in the town were running so high. Additionally, the trial of Cunningham occurred just prior to that of Jackson. The media covered every detail of the trial. Cunningham received the death penalty two weeks before jury selection began in Jackson's trial.

The trial court denied Jackson's motion for a change of venue, and curtailed his attempts during voir dire to ask prospective jurors about their exposure to pre-trial publicity. The Sixth Circuit was clearly troubled by the circumstances of Jackson's trial, particularly his jury, but in the face of AEDPA deference and strong Supreme Court precedent emphasizing the discretion of trial judges to manage voir dire, the Court rejected Jackson's habeas petition.

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