A recent Sixth Circuit opinion concerned a Tennessee man, Ronald Michael Cauthern v. Roland Colson, who was convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to death for his crimes. Cauthern sought a writ of habeas corpus following his convictions, something which was denied by the district court. However, the district court did grant Cauthern the chance to appeal several claims, something that the Sixth Circuit agreed to hear.
Cauthern began by appealing his convictions based on prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, suppression of favorable evidence and improper review of the exclusion of mitigating evidence. Though the Sixth Circuit heard his arguments on each point, the Court ultimately found two points convincing, one involving prosecutorial misconduct and another about ineffective assistance of counsel. As a result, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court with respect to those two claims and granted Cauthern a conditional writ of habeas corpus.
Cauthern’s case concerned the rape and murder of two officers in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, a husband and wife. Cauthern was ultimately convicted for their murder based on some pieces of evidence that linked him to the murder scene, including testimony that he had done some repair work on the couple’s Mercedes in the past. During the trial, transcripts show that the prosecutor went out of his way to impress upon the jury how evil Cauthern was. Several times the prosecutor described Cauthern as “the evil one” and mentioned the Lord’s Prayer, implying that the jury’s conviction of Cauthern was part of a moral obligation. Prosecutors also compared Cauthern to several other notorious murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed with the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision that the statements were not unfairly prejudicial. Instead, the Sixth Circuit wrote that the prosecutor’s remarks were clearly improper and that any reasonable person would conclude that a jury could be inflamed by them.
The Court said that in determining how damaging the prosecutor’s remarks were to Cauthern’s case, the question hinged on the likelihood that the remarks prejudiced the defendant such that they could no longer be confident in the jury’s sentence of death. The Sixth Circuit concluded that due to the number of abuses and the egregiousness of the prosecutor’s conduct it was clear that no reasonable person would be able to be confident in the result returned by the jury.
In its opinion, the Court’s majority wrote that based on the quantity of prosecutorial misconduct as well as the severity of that misconduct, no reasonable person could be assured that Cauthern had received a fair trial. As a result, the Court granted Cauthern’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.
To read the full opinion, click here.