Volunteer attorneys at Dykema Gossett PLLC achieved a significant victory for their client David Aaron Perkins this spring when a judge reversed his conviction. Dykema has represented Mr. Perkins in his habeas appeal for more than a decade.
In 1997, Mr. Perkins was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury in Clayton County, Georgia. Two years later, the volunteer team at Dykema agreed to represent Mr. Perkins and began to uncover evidence that was not presented at trial. The evidence revealed Mr. Perkins’ difficult past, including regular beatings at the hands of his father throughout his childhood and substantial behavioral changes resulting from two serious head injuries at ages 18 and 20. The most compelling discovery, however, came in the form of a note sent to the trial judge by the jurors. The note read: “[W]e, the jury, have a question concerning our safety. Will our names be protected from the defendant and the defendant’s family?” In affidavits gathered by the Dykema team, jurors stated that they feared for their safety during the trial, but their fear was never disclosed to the prosecution or the defense. Dykema argued that if the note had been disclosed, defense counsel would likely have sought and obtained a mistrial.
In addition to raising claims related to the jury note, Dykema attorneys argued in a petition for post-conviction relief that Mr. Perkins had been unfit to stand trial and received ineffective counsel because his trial attorneys failed to investigate his brain injuries and interview family members to discover mitigating evidence. In March 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court vacated Mr. Perkins’ death sentence, agreeing that he had received ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The court remanded the case for a new penalty phase trial. The court also ordered a hearing on the impact and timing of the jury note, saying:
If the jury sent the note while it was deliberating over Perkins’s guilt or his sentence, the trial court’s failure to advise the parties of this inquiry and to respond appropriately amounts to actual prejudice. This is because the note, if written during deliberations, would clearly indicate that the jurors were being actively distracted from their duties by serious and inappropriate external concerns.
On May 23, 2013, after a hearing on the significance of the note, the Butts County Superior Court reversed Mr. Perkins’ murder conviction. In the order, Judge Ralph Van Pelt, Jr. detailed the affidavits and testimony of the jurors, holding that because the note was written during the guilt/innocence phase, the “trial court’s failure to advise the parties of this inquiry and to respond appropriately amounts to actual prejudice.”