An 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel voted 2-1 in United States v. Bates, 2014 WL 5421846, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 20564 (Oct. 27, 2014), to vacate the child pornography conviction of Cameron Dean Bates, who had been convicted by a Southern District of Florida jury and sentenced to 240 months in federal prison for receiving, accessing, distributing, and possessing child pornography. The majority of the panel concluded that the trial judge erred by denying Bates’ request that potential jurors be questioned about their attitudes concerning homosexuality, and that this was not harmless error in light of the evidence the government proposed to introduce in the case. Dissenting Judge Robert L. Hinkle, a district court judge from a different district in Florida, contended that the error was harmless because of the overwhelming evidence against Bates, but the majority clearly thought this wasn’t the point; that a criminal defendant is entitled to a fair trial before an impartial jury.
The opinion for the court by Judge Beverly Baldwin Martin does not say how the government got wind of Bates’s activities, but investigators enlisted Bates’s internet service providers to help them trace downloads of child porn to his computer, then obtained a search warrant and did a forensic investigation that yielded not only evidence concerning child pornography but also evidence of Bates’s homosexual activities with other adults and occasional cross-dressing, which the government intended to introduce at trial (and did, over Bates’s objections) in countering Bates’s argument that somebody else was using his laptop to access child porn. Bates sought voir dire about the jurors’ attitudes towards homosexuality, but the obtuse district judge said that he could not see how that had anything to do with the case, and refused the request, just as he overruled Bates’s motions to exclude the evidence going to his homosexual activities.
“In this case,” wrote Martin, “the District Court optimistically declared that our society is beyond prejudice on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation. While we admire the District Court’s optimism, it remains the case that ‘there will be, on virtually every jury, people who would find the lifestyle and sexual preferences of a homosexual or bisexual person offensive’ [citing numerous cases]. We have no doubt that evidence of Mr. Bates’s sexual activity and gender non-conforming conduct had the potential to unfairly prejudice jurors.”
As to the District Court’s puzzlement about how this had anything to do with the case, the court of appeals majority found that Bates’s sexual activities “became ‘inextricably bound up’ with the issues to be resolved at trial. This fact should have been obvious to the District Court given its ruling before voir dire that it did not intend to exclude the sexually explicit images of Mr. Bates found on his computer. And if it wasn’t obvious to the District Court before jury selection began, it should have become obvious when Mr. Bates requested the Court to explore the potential prejudice before striking jurors. When the District Court expressed confusion about what homosexuality ‘has to do with this case,’ the government explained that it intended to introduce ‘pictures and items from the defendant’s computer to show that he was engaged in homosexual activity. . . which goes to show that he wouldn’t be sharing his computer with other people.”
The court held that the government failed in its burden to prove harmless error. “Because the District Court refused to ask any questions at all about prejudice on the basis of sexual preferences, we have no way to discern whether the jury was biased against Mr. Bates for that reason,” wrote Judge Martin. “Because the jurors had no reason to know that issues about same-sex sexual practices would be part of the evidence at trial, they had no reason to offer up prejudices they might harbor on that basis when the District Court posed its general questions.” The court also expressed lack of confidence that the trial judge’s limiting instructions to the jurors cautioning them about the use of the evidence would have adequately cured the “constitutional deficiencies in this voir dire process.”
“In light of the quantity and the explicit content of the evidence about Mr. Bates’s sexuality paraded before the jury,” wrote Martin, “the risk that latent, undiscovered prejudices may have inflamed is great. Indeed, it seems that the government expected the evidence to have exactly that effect at the time it was introduced. After asking one of Mr. Bates’s family members whether she knew about his same-sex sexual activities and gender non-conforming behavior, the government followed up with this telling question: ‘And would that have affected your opinion of him?’ We can think of no reason to ask this question but to suggest that, perhaps, it should.”
“If Mr. Bates is to be convicted,” Martin continued, “we must have sufficient assurances that it is done by a fair and impartial jury of his peers. Here, the risk that Mr. Bates was convicted by jurors who cared less about the charged criminal conduct than about his perfectly legal sexual activity, is intolerably high. His convictions must therefore be vacated, and we remand this case for further proceedings.” The court also commented that the trial court may have given Bates inadequate time prior to his trial to prepare his defense, as the government added new charges shortly before trial, and concluded, “we hope and expect that the District Court will be mindful of his need for expert assistance and adequate time to prepare for trial.”
Judge Hinkle’s harmless error dissent ended on a defensive note. “One is left asking why, if the evidence of guilt was as clear as I believe it was, the government asked improper, prejudicial questions? A possible inference is that the government thought a conviction was not certain. A possible inference is that the government thought at least some jurors were biased and that appealing to that bias would help bring about a conviction. Why else would the government do it? I am left in the uncomfortable position of concluding the government was wrong – that it didn’t need the prejudicial impact it improperly pursued. It is with no enthusiasm that I dissent.”