A Black man’s criminal conviction was overturned in Tennessee after an appeals court said the jury, which deliberated in a room adorned with a Confederate flag and a portrait of Jefferson Davis, had been “exposed” to "improper influence."
In a 31-page decision issued Friday, the state’s criminal court of appeals ordered a new trial for the man, Tim Gilbert.
The court also ruled that during Gilbert's trial, prosecutors improperly admitted a statement from a key witness.
Gilbert was arrested after a family dispute on Christmas Eve three years ago in Murfreesboro, southeast of Nashville, according to the decision. A grand jury indicted him the following April on charges of reckless endangerment, unlawful possession of a firearm and resisting arrest, and he was convicted in a jury trial last year.
Both juries deliberated in the "U.D.C. room" in the Giles County Courthouse, which is maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the decision says. The judge who wrote the decision, James Curwood Witt Jr., noted that it wasn't clear how the private group came to "possess" the room nearly a century ago or add its emblem to the door in 2005.
Inside the room were the flag, portraits of Confederate leaders and a framed letter from the U.D.C.'s national leader. Gilbert's lawyers argued that having a room "festooned with Confederate memorabilia and maintained by the U.D.C. implied that the court 'subscribes to the confederate principles' and that to many, 'the confederacy and racism go hand in hand,'" the decision says.
“'The symbols on that wall do nothing but embolden' jurors to act on racial animus," his lawyers argued, according to the decision.
Prosecutors argued that Gilbert had waived the matter because he failed to raise it before the jury was seated, the decision says. They also contended that the room couldn't have tainted the jury because Gilbert had been acquitted in a previous case heard in the same court.
But the appeals court rejected the arguments. And because authorities were barred from conveying messages to the jury, the decision says, prosecutors had to prove that the "U.D.C room" was harmless — which they hadn't done.