KINGSPORT (AP) — An appellate court has overturned the conviction of a former death row inmate in the fatal stabbing of an elderly East Tennessee bait shop owner nearly a decade ago.
The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Steven James Rollins must receive a new trial, according to the Kingsport Times-News.
Rollins, who is now 48, was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery in the killing of 81-year-old James T. Bussell inside Bussell’s Fisherman’s Paradise bait shop near Kingsport on Aug. 21, 2001. He was sentenced to death, but the penalty was overturned in 2010 and a new sentencing hearing ordered.
That decision was appealed to the higher court, which threw out his conviction.
In the order granting the new trial, the three-judge panel agreed that Rollins suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel during his trial and that a “biased juror” served on his jury. The two claims were linked by Rollins’ assertion that his trial attorneys failed to “properly” question prospective jurors, including the one with apparent bias, during the selection process.
The problematic juror is identified as “Juror 9.” In a 2008 affidavit, the juror allegedly acknowledges he had known Bussell and bought bait from him at least once a week before he was killed. The juror allegedly states, “I had my mind made up as soon as they seated the jury. I could tell by looking at him that he was a crook.”
The juror goes on to state his belief that “death is the only appropriate punishment” for a person convicted of murder, then says, “but no one asked me about my opinion.”
The order states that a review of the transcript of the jury selection process indicates the questions were “reasonably calculated to solicit any juror’s personal knowledge of the victim” and notes that at least three other jurors informed the court that they knew the victim or his place of business.
In the case of Juror 9, the appeals court said the juror’s failure to volunteer information about his friendship with Bussell constituted “a presumption of bias” and notes there is “nothing in the record to overcome” it. As a result, the panel found Rollins was denied his constitutional rights to a trial by a fair and impartial jury.