A Tennessee appellate court says there’s nothing “inherently prejudicial” in grand jurors and jurors deliberating the fates of Black people from inside the “Confederate jury room” — where the walls are adorned with a Confederate flag, portraits of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate Gen. John C. Brown, and other Confederacy memorabilia — in a courthouse located in a town known as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.
In a ruling made public Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals is refusing to vacate drug convictions meted out to Black man Barry Jamal Martin by a jury that deliberated in a room awash in Confederal memorabilia.
The ruling directly contradicts a prior decision by a separate panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals issued in December 2021 that vacated the convictions of Black man Tim Gilbert based on the jury’s exposure to the same Confederate memorabilia. The same attorney — Evan P. Baddour — represented both men in their appeals.
The three-judge panel insisted in a footnote in its Tuesday ruling that it was not bound by the decision in Gilbert’s case but offered little explanation for why Martin was not afforded the same outcome.
As to the memorabilia being inherently prejudicial, we question whether the average citizen would recognize the portraits of Jefferson Davis or John C. Brown, the insignia for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the third national flag of the Confederate States of America. We acknowledge that the Confederate battle flag has become a controversial symbol in this country … However, the flag in this case is not the Confederate battle flag.
– Judge John W. Campbell
“Unpublished opinions constitute only persuasive authority and are not binding precedent,” the footnote stated.
Like Gilbert, Martin argued his convictions should be struck down as biased because both grand jurors who indicted him and jurors who convicted him deliberated in a room decorated and funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s chapter in Pulaski, Tenn.
The deliberation room was known as the “U.D.C.” room and had on its door the Confederate national flag and the United Daughters of the Confederacy insignia. The Giles County courthouse in which the room is located is in Pulaski, where the Klan was founded in 1865 and where white nationalist groups still hold rallies.
The “Confederate jury room,” as it is dubbed in the appellate opinion, has been the site for grand jury and jury deliberations in criminal cases since 1909. Giles County leaders voted to move the memorabilia to a museum and redecorate the jury room after the Gilbert decision was issued.
But the removal of the memorabilia did not come before Martin was tried in February 2020.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the appellate court panel concluded there was no proof grand jurors and jurors deliberating in the “Confederate jury room” were influenced by the memorabilia in Martin’s case or any other.
“While we certainly do not condone the presence of the memorabilia in the jury room, we conclude that (Martin) failed to show that any specific extraneous prejudicial information was improperly brought to the jury’s attention or improperly brought to bear upon any juror (or grand juror),” the opinion stated.
“As to the memorabilia being inherently prejudicial, we question whether the average citizen would recognize the portraits of Jefferson Davis or John C. Brown, the insignia for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the third national flag of the Confederate States of America,” the opinion continued. “We acknowledge that the Confederate battle flag has become a controversial symbol in this country … However, the flag in this case is not the Confederate battle flag.”
Giles County grand jury foreman and Pulaski historian Sam T. Collins testified at a hearing in Martin’s case that the “Confederate jury room” was created by the United Daughters of Confederacy in 1909.
“That U.D.C. room is that because in 1907, this courthouse burned,” Collins testified. “And then in 1909, it was moved back into. Between 1907 and 1909, there are groups of people in Giles County that contributed money, contributed time, did things to try to benefit the restructure of this courthouse. And the United Daughters of the Confederacy outfitted that room with the table, the chairs, and the things in that. And they were allowed to put their initials, U.D.C., on the door.”
The room is awash in Confederate memorabilia, including a framed Confederate national flag described in the appellate opinion as “the Confederate battle flag, a blue diagonal cross trimmed with white and bearing thirteen white stars on a red background, appears in the upper left of the flag.” In addition to photos and plaques honoring Davis and Brown, a letter from the United Daughters of the Confederacy is framed and hanging on the wall. It reads, in part, “As members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, we must continue to honor our Confederate Veterans, and share the history of the War Between the States.”
Both Collins and Circuit Court Clerk Natalie Oakley testified that no one, including grand jurors and jurors, has ever commented on or even paid close particular attention to the memorabilia.
“(When) asked if Mr. Collins had ever been concerned that a grand jury had been influenced in a way that would be prejudicial to someone of a different race … he responded, ‘Never,’” the court’s opinion stated.
In Tuesday’s opinion, the appellate court noted the memorabilia at issue “had been in the jury room for years, if not decades,” without any proof it prejudiced grand jurors and jurors deliberating in it.
“The memorabilia in the jury room did not pertain to (Martin), to any fact of the case, or to the procedural or evidentiary rules that apply to a criminal trial,” wrote Appellate Judge John W. Campbell Sr. in Tuesday’s opinion. “(Martin) did not call any jurors to testify that even a single juror closely observed the items at issue, read any plaques attached to the items, read the letter on the wall, or recognized the items as symbols of the Confederacy.
“In fact, no juror testified as to even noticing or being aware that the memorabilia was in the room,” Campbell wrote. “Likewise, no jurors testified that any juror mentioned the memorabilia during deliberations.”
A separate three-judge panel of the court held the opposite view of the impact of the memorabilia in Gilbert’s case.
“Although the government may choose to convey any message that it wants to the general public, it may not convey any message at all to the jurors in a criminal trial,” Appellate Judge James Curwood Witt Jr., wrote in the Gilbert opinion. “Because Giles County may not convey any message to the jury, we conclude that permitting the jury to deliberate in a room filled with Confederate memorabilia exposed the jury to extraneous information or improper outside influence.”
Martin can seek to appeal the ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which declined to review the Gilbert decision earlier this year.
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