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Tucker v. Thomas

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 11, 2017

EDWARD THOMAS, Warden, Central Prison, Raleigh, North Carolina, Respondent.


          Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.

         Russell William Tucker, a prisoner of the State of North Carolina, was sentenced to death for the 1994 murder of Maurice Travone Williams. On February 21, 2008, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging his conviction and sentence. After staying the petition for a significant period, the Court lifted the stay on May 15, 2015. Mr. Tucker has since filed a First Amended Petition and a Second Amended Petition adding additional claims.

         This order addresses Mr. Tucker's claim of juror misconduct, raised in his original petition. Doc. 11 at 15-18 (Ground Two). The Court concludes that the petitioner is entitled to an evidentiary hearing before this claim can be resolved. The Court will refer the matter to the Magistrate Judge for a hearing and recommended findings on whether a juror communicated with a third party about the matter pending before the jury and, if so, whether the contact draws into question the integrity of the verdict, and for a recommendation as to the merits of the juror misconduct claim.

         An opinion on the other issues raised in the original and amended petitions will be entered once briefing is completed on the amended petitions and as time permits.

         I. Background[1]

         On December 8, 1994, Mr. Tucker stole items from the Super K-Mart Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. State v. Tucker, 347 N.C. 235');">347 N.C. 235, 239-40, 490 S.E.2d 559, 561 (1997); Doc. 11-1 at 13-16.[2] When confronted by store employees in the parking lot, Mr. Tucker pulled out a handgun and shot at the employees, killing one. Mr. Tucker then ran toward a wooded area. In his efforts to escape, he shot and wounded two Winston-Salem police officers. He fled after he ran out of ammunition, but he was located and arrested approximately an hour later.

         Mr. Tucker pleaded not guilty to the crimes at the Super K-Mart and proceeded to trial. See Doc. 11-1 at 1-2. The jury found Mr. Tucker guilty of first-degree murder by premeditation and deliberation and pursuant to the felony murder rule based on his assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill the K-Mart employee, two counts of assault with a firearm on a law enforcement officer, and discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle. Id. at 2, 16.

         During the sentencing phase, the State presented evidence to support four aggravating circumstances. See Tucker, 347 N.C. at 245, 490 S.E.2d at 564. The jury found all four aggravating circumstances, as well as three mitigating circumstances. Id.; Doc. 11-1 at 2. The jury recommended that Mr. Tucker be sentenced to death, and the trial court sentenced him accordingly. Tucker, 347 N.C. at 239, 490 S.E.2d at 561. The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence, id. at 245-47, 490 S.E.2d at 564-65, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Tucker v. North Carolina, 523 U.S. 1061 (1998).

         II. The Juror Misconduct Claim

         A. The Motion for Appropriate Relief

         After his conviction was upheld on direct appeal, Mr. Tucker filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) in state court pursuant to North Carolina's statutory post-conviction process. N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 15A-1411 to 15A-1422. As is relevant here, Mr. Tucker asserted that one of the jurors spoke to his neighbor about the religious implications of the death penalty while the trial was in process, violating Mr. Tucker's Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. Doc. 11-1 at 5.

         In support of his MAR, Mr. Tucker submitted affidavits from two law students who had interviewed jurors. Doc. 11-1 at 113; Ex. 21 to Doc. 13 (attaching Anstett Aff., Mar. 26, 1999 and May Aff., Mar. 26, 1999).[3] Each student testified in their affidavits that the juror, Brenton Sharpe, “revealed to me that he had difficulty in returning a sentence of death and that he remembered being the most reluctant of the jurors to vote for death.” Ex. 21 to Doc. 13 at Anstett Aff. ¶ 4 and May Aff. ¶ 4. Each student then testified:

5. [That] Mr. Sharpe also stated that after the verdict of guilty was entered and before the sentencing deliberations began, he consulted with a neighbor, who is a pastor and a Sunday school teacher;
6. That his reason for speaking with this individual before the sentencing phase began was to determine whether or not his soul would be condemned by God or placed in jeopardy for sentencing a man to die;
7. That this neighbor gave Mr. Sharpe Bible verses to read;
8. That after speaking with his neighbor and reading the Bible verses, Mr. Sharpe was confident that he would not suffer personally for sentencing someone to death and ...

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