Lisa Chamberlin was convicted of two counts of capital murder in 2006 and sentenced to death.
As is normal in death penalty cases, Chamberlin appealed her sentence on several grounds: that her lawyers failed to raise the possibility that her withdrawal from meth addiction might have had an effect during a police interrogation, that the court did not produce key evidence in her case and that putting her to death by lethal injection would subject her to cruel and unusual punishment.
Most importantly, it turns out, Chamberlin also argued that the state’s prosecutors illegally excluded African Americans from her jury, a violation of the U.S. Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky.
A federal judge in Mississippi agreed with Chamberlin’s lawyers that blacks had been unfairly excluded from the jury. Recently, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed as well, ordering that Chamberlin receive a new trial.
The ruling is rare — because defendants rarely win Batson challenges — but more so because Chamberlin is white.
Legal experts say the ruling is part of a trend, fueled by increased criminal-justice advocacy in recent years, to root out racial bias in all parts of the criminal-justice system regardless of the race of participants.
“I think the Batson issue is, as this case says, is really an issue for everybody,” said Elizabeth Carlyle, a Kansas City-based attorney who handled Chamberlin’s most recent appeal.
Chamberlin’s case has garnered national attention in large part because Chamberlin is also the only woman currently on death row in Mississippi.
Another woman, Michelle Byrom, was set to be executed in 2012 until the state supreme court found that prosecutors failed to show jurors evidence that could prove Byrom’s innocence. She was released in July 2015.
Unlike in the Byrom case, no one is arguing that Chamberlin is innocent. In fact, several courts noted the gruesome nature of the crime for which Chamberlin was convicted.
In 2004 Chamberlin and her boyfriend, Randy Gillette, were staying with Vernon Hulett, and Hulett’s girlfriend, Linda Heintzelman when the couple asked Gillette and Chamberlin to move out.
A fight broke out and, according to court documents, Gillette and Chamberlin beat the couple — Heintzelman was sexually assaulted — before killing them both. Hulett was beaten to death with a hammer; Heintzelman was suffocated. Their bodies were put in a freezer and driven to Kansas. Chamberlin and Gillette later were arrested there when the bodies were found in a freezer where they were living.
Chamberlin’s attorneys, legal observers and now a federal appeals court all agree that neither the heinous nature of her crime nor the fact that Chamberlin is white excuses the fact that African Americans appear to have been excluded from her jury.
“What the Supreme Court has told us is that we’re, in a sense, standing in the shoes of the prospective jurors and they have a right to participate in that civic duty without being discriminated against because of their race,” Carlyle said.
Even though these racial exclusion cases tend to be rare, courts in recent years have noted that race discrimination in the jury selection process remains widespread.
A 2010 report published by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative examined jury selection processes in eight southern states and “uncovered shocking evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection in every state,” including in Mississippi.
Authors of the Equal Justice Initiative report note that the Mississippi Supreme Court recognized that racial bias in jury selection remains a pervasive problem.
In 2007, the state Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the murders of four people in a Winona furniture store. In ordering a new trial for Flowers, justices expressed frustration that “attorneys of this state persist in violating the principles of Batson by racially profiling jurors” and found that “racially-motivated jury selection is still prevalent twenty years after Batson was handed down.”
In June 2010, Flowers, who is black, was again tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Six years later, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Flowers’ case back to the lower courts for a review of racial bias in the jury selection process.
“What you’re seeing is an effort to recognize that when you have racial discrimination or racial bias that is injected into the administration of justice, it undermines the entire system,” said Vincent Southerland, the director the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law.
Southerland said these kinds of cases rarely make it to the federal appeals courts, which do not often tell lower courts that they got it wrong. That Chamberlin is white makes it even more rare though quantifying it is difficult because there is little tracking of Batson challenges and their outcomes, he said.
“Racial bias does infect the process no matter where it comes in — selecting a juror or deciding what the punishment might be for an individual,” Southerland said. “Racial discrimination in the selection of jurors generally casts doubt on the entire process and, more generally, on the integrity of the entire process. Therefore, it’s just as odious, regardless of who the defendant is or what the defendant looks like or the defendant’s race.”
A spokeswoman for the Mississippi Attorney General’s office, which represents the Department of Corrections in the Chamberlin case, said no decision has been made about whether the 5th Circuit’s ruling would be appealed.