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GA Supreme Court Vacates Death Sentence Due to Error in Voir Dire

November 30, 2012

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed Clayton Jerrod Ellington’s death sentence after determining that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to allow Ellington to ask potential jurors whether they would automatically impose the death penalty in his case rather than fairly and impartially considering all the sentencing options available.

The Georgia Supreme Court held that this was an unreasonable restriction on voir dire and reversed Ellington’s death sentence.

Ellington was convicted of three counts of malice murder after his wife and two young twin boys were found dead at the Ellington home. Forensic experts testified that all three victims most likely died from injuries received after multiple blows from a hammer. At first, Ellington denied any involvement in the incident, but he later stated that he discovered his wife beating their child with a hammer, took the hammer from her, and then beat her in retaliation.

Prior to trial, Ellington requested that he be permitted to ask jurors if they would be able to sentence the defendant to anything other than death in a case where the defendant was accused of killing a child. The prosecution vigorously opposed this question, claiming the defense should not be permitted to pose hypothetical questions seeking jurors to commit to a specific sentence on voir dire. The trial court agreed that Ellington’s question would cause jurors to “pre-judge” the case and ruled that Ellington could not ask this question during voir dire.

On appeal, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed with Ellington and found that the trial court abused its discretion by not allowing Ellington to inquire into this issue with potential jurors.

The Court cited O.C.G.A. § 15-12-133, which states that either party has the right to ask potential jurors about biases they might have related to the subject matter of the case. The Court went on to explain that because many people have such strong, deep-rooted feelings about cases involving child victims and punishments that should be levied against people accused of those crimes, these feelings could interfere with their ability to be impartial. Thus, the Court concluded that Ellington should have been permitted to inquire into that issue before his trial began.

The Court also noted that although Ellington was not allowed to bring up the subject during voir dire, several potential jurors raised the issue on their own and stated that they were unable to be impartial in the case based on the fact that some of the alleged victims were children. Those jurors were excused for cause. The Court reasoned that it was not impossible for a like-minded juror to have made it onto Ellington’s jury due to the lack of inquiry into this particular subject matter. Additionally, the Court considered the prosecution’s heavy emphasis on the child victims throughout its entire case as an indication that jurors relied heavily on this fact during both the guilt/innocence and penalty phases of the trial.

Although the Georgia Supreme Court vacated Ellington’s death sentence, it held that the prosecution presented sufficient evidence at trial to support his convictions. Thus, the State is free to re-try the penalty phase of Ellington’s case and once again seek the death penalty.

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