Lewd gifts lead to reprieve for death-row inmate

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday said a Cobb County man sentenced to death may need a new hearing because jurors sent lewd gifts to the trial judge and courthouse bailiff.

In a 5-4 ruling, the high court directed the federal appeals court to decide whether Marcus Wellons received a fair trial in light of the fact the jurors who condemned him to death sent chocolate shaped like a penis to Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley and chocolate in the shape of female breasts to the bailiff.

The gifts were sent either during the jury's sentencing deliberations or immediately after the 1993 trial, the decision said.

"From beginning to end, judicial proceedings conducted for the purpose of deciding whether a defendant shall be put to death must be conducted with dignity and respect," the unsigned decision said. "The disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial."

Wellons was sentenced to death for raping and strangling 15-year-old India Roberts, a Campbell High School sophomore, in 1989.

Wellons' lawyer, Beth Wells, said she and Wellons were elated with the court's ruling. Wells said she is hopeful the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta will carefully consider the issue.

"It's just so inappropriate in a death-penalty case for something like this to have happened," Wells said. "We've always felt, at the very least, the court should look at it and review it carefully."

The court's majority said neither Wellons nor any court had determined "exactly what went on at this capital trial or what prompted such ‘gifts.'"

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented, noting Wellons has already outlived his victim by 20 years.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, also dissented, saying the 11th Circuit already considered the issue and had allowed Wellons' lawyers to contact all the jurors and relevant court personnel. However, Alito said he agreed with the majority that "the strange and tasteless gifts that were given to the trial judge and the bailiff are facially troubling."