News & Insights

Dykema Wins Reversal of Sentencing and Conviction for Georgia Death Row Inmate

June 5, 2013

In March, 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court vacated the sentence of death that was imposed on Georgia death row inmate David Aaron Perkins.  The Supreme Court remanded the case for a new penalty phase trial and further investigation and a hearing on the timing and impact of certain notes sent to the trial court by the jury.  Last week, after a hearing on remand, the Butts County Superior Court issued an Order reversing Perkins’ guilt conviction based on habeas counsel’s discovery of a juror note that revealed the jury suffered from fear and prejudice during its guilty/innocence deliberations.

Patrick F. Hickey of the law firm Dykema Gossett PLLC, Claire Harrison, now a clerk to a federal magistrate judge in Ann Arbor (formerly a Dykema attorney), and Jeffrey L. Ertel from the Federal Defender’s Office in Atlanta, Georgia have been representing Perkins throughout his habeas appeal for more than a decade.  Christopher Miller, a former Dykema associate and now with the General Motors’ legal staff, also worked on the case.

In the Order recently signed by Presiding Judge Ralph Van Pelt, Jr. of the Butts County Superior Court, Judge Van Pelt details that a jury note written during Perkins’ original 1997 trial expressing the jurors’ fear for their safety was never disclosed to the prosecution or defense. Instead, the note was discovered in the court file by a member of one of Mr. Perkins’ defense team a number of years after the trial was concluded.

Through affidavits and testimony presented to the Butts County Superior Court, it was established that the notes were written during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial and prior to the jury’s deliberations on guilt, which meant that the jury was being actively distracted from their duties when they reached their ‘guilty’ verdict.

According to Judge Van Pelt’s Order, “If the jury sent the note while it was deliberating over Perkins’ guilt or his sentence, the trial court’s failure to advise the parties of this inquiry and to respond appropriately amounts to actual prejudice.”

“Had these notes been disclosed during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial, defense counsel would have sought and obtained a mistrial,” said Patrick Hickey, a partner in Dykema’s Litigation practice.  “To not be advised of these notes is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to be present at all critical phases of the trial.”

Perkins was originally convicted in Clayton County, Georgia, for the 1995 murder of his neighbor, Herbert Ryals III, and was sentenced to death. In March 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and sent the case back for a new penalty trial on the basis of an abundance of mitigation evidence Dykema lawyers uncovered, which was not presented during the 1997 trial – including accounts of abuse Perkins suffered as a youth and two significant head injuries which drastically altered his behavior.

The State of Georgia will have 30 days to appeal the Butts County Superior Court’s latest ruling.

“This ruling is based on fact findings by the Court, so we are hopeful and confident that the order for a new trial will stand,” said Hickey.