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December 3, 2015
  Porter v. Zook -- Fourth Circuit
It's All About Who You Know: Fourth Circuit Remands Case Where Law Student Discovers Juror Relationship that Could Lead to Finding of Actual Bias in Murder Trial

Areas of Law: Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Federal Appellate Jurisdiction

Issue Presented: Whether the Fourth Circuit has jurisdiction over a habeas corpus petition when the District Court did not consider all of the appellant's claims, particularly one of actual juror bias.

Brief Summary: In a published opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed and remanded a challenge to the dismissal of a habeas corpus petition for lack of jurisdiction where the District Court's failed to consider Thomas Porter's claim of actual juror bias.

Extended Summary: In 2007, following a month-long manhunt, a jury in Arlington County, Virginia, convicted Thomas Porter of capital murder, grand larceny, and use of a firearm in commission of a felony for shooting a Norfolk police officer. The jury sentenced Porter to death, and a lengthy appeals process followed in the state and federal courts.

In the most recent decision in the Porter saga, the Fourth Circuit considered the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia's dismissal of Porter's petition for writ of habeas corpus. The Fourth Circuit, however, never reached the merits of Porter's case because it determined it did not have jurisdiction. Specifically, the court held that the lower court did not make a final decision on Porter's claim of actual juror bias.

During the jury selection process at Porter's trial, the judge asked potential jurors whether they were related to law enforcement officers. One juror, Mr. Treakle, revealed that he had a nephew who was an officer in Arlington, but assured the judge that he could remain impartial. Mr. Treakle failed to tell counsel about his brother, who was a deputy sheriff in the town that borders Norfolk, where the crime took place.

While conducting an investigation for Porter's appeal, a law student interviewed the jurors who decided Porter's guilt, including Mr. Treakle. In an affidavit, Mr. Treakle admitted that he was very moved by the testimony of the officer's widow because he had a brother who was a deputy sheriff. Based on this new information, Porter raised two distinct, but related, juror bias claims in his federal habeas petition in District Court. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit determined that the District Court considered only the first claim, but not the second.

First, Porter raised a claim based on Mr. Treakle's conduct during voir dire, which the District Court analyzed under the standard identified in McDonough Power Equipment, Inc. v. Greenwood, 464 U.S. 548 (1984). McDonough allows for a new trial if a juror fails to honestly answer a material question. The District Court ruled that although Mr. Treakle did not reveal all of his connections to law enforcement, he technically did not give false information during voir dire. Counsel was responsible for asking follow-up questions, which they failed to do.

Second, Porter claimed that Treakle was actually biased, or "biased in fact" because of his close relationship with his brother, who was an officer in a jurisdiction that participated in the manhunt for Porter. See Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209 (1982). The Fourth Circuit pointed out that the actual bias claim could succeed, even though the corresponding McDonough claim failed below. The Fourth Circuit cited a Fifth Circuit case, United States v. Scott, 854 F.2d 697, 698 - 700 (5th Cir. 1988), where a new trial was granted based, similarly, on a juror's undisclosed relationship to a deputy sheriff. According to the Fourth Circuit, the District Court failed to analyze this separate claim. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit panel remanded the case without comment on the merits so that the lower court could make a final decision on the actual bias claim.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges Shedd, Thacker, and Harris.

Argument Date:
September 16, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: October 20, 2015

Docket Number: No. 14-5

Decided: Dismissed and remanded by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Natalie Bilbrough, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Dawn Michele Davison, VIRGINIA CAPITAL REPRESENTATION RESOURCE CENTER, Charlottesville, Virginia, for Appellant. Matthew P. Dullaghan, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Robert Lee, Lindsey Layer, VIRGINIA CAPITAL REPRESENTATION RESOURCE CENTER, Charlottesville, Virginia; Brian K. French, NIXON PEABODY, LLP, Boston, Massachusetts; Trey Kelleter, VANDEVENTER BLACK, LLP, Norfolk, Virginia, for Appellant. Mark R. Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF VIRGINIA, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 12/03/2015 11:50 AM     4th Circuit  

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