JACKSON, Mississippi — A Mississippi death row inmate convicted of killing his roommate can file more appeals because white jurors might have been improperly influenced by trial court bailiffs expressing opinions to them about black jurors not favoring the death penalty, the state Supreme Court ruled in a split decision Thursday.
The majority of the court said statements by bailiffs to jurors might have violated Bobby Batiste's constitutional right to an impartial jury.
Batiste, a former Mississippi State University student from Preston, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2009 in Oktibbeha County in the 2008 slaying of Andreas Galanis of Biloxi.
Prosecutors said Galanis died from a blow to the head after he and Batiste fought at their off-campus apartment in Starkville when Galanis discovered money missing from his checking account. Batiste told police that Galanis attacked him first, according to court records.
The Mississippi Supreme Court in 2013 upheld Batiste's conviction and sentence, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 said it would not hear Batiste's appeal for a new trial.
The state Supreme Court said Thursday that after those appeals were rejected, juror Denise Cranford filed a sworn statement saying bailiffs were friendly and "explained the law" to jurors during the trial. Cranford wrote that she and some other jurors initially were concerned about the jury being all-white, but a bailiff said black and white people view the death penalty differently.
"The bailiff said that black people will not consider the death penalty. After that explanation I was no longer concerned," Cranford said in her statement, according to Supreme Court records.
Batiste, now 36, is black.
During Batiste's earlier appeals, his attorneys had no reason to know jurors might have been influenced by bailiffs, Justice James W. Kitchens wrote in the order Thursday.
"While such an explanation may have alleviated the concerns of jurors regarding the absence of African Americans on Batiste's jury, we cannot say that such remarks to jurors, if made, did not impact Batiste's fundamental constitutional right to a fair trial by an impartial jury," Kitchens wrote. "This case seems especially egregious in light of the heightened standard which we are bound to apply in cases which involve the death penalty."
Justice Randy Pierce wrote in a dissent: "There is no indication that the bailiff expressed personal beliefs relating to Batiste's conviction or sentence, or that the comments influenced the jury's decision-making process."
Batiste's attorneys have 60 days to file a petition for post-conviction relief in Oktibbeha County Circuit Court. In such a petition, an inmate argues he has found new evidence, or a possible constitutional issue, that could persuade a court to order a new trial.
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