Death row inmate asking high court for new hearing over juror's racial slur

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - An African-American man on death row is asking the U.S. Supreme Court for a new sentencing hearing because a white juror who voted for the death penalty later referred to him with a racial slur.

Kenneth Fults was sentenced to death for the 1996 killing of Cathy Bounds, who was shot five times in the back of her head. Fults has been trying for 10 years to get a court to consider evidence that racial bias deprived him of a fair trial.

Fults' lawyers obtained a signed statement from juror Thomas Buffington in which Buffington twice used the racial slur when referring to Fults.

State and federal judges have so far rejected Fults' appeal. His case is on the justices' agenda when they meet on September 28. Buffington died last year.

The appeal is striking in its use of a racial slur by a juror. But claims of racial bias regularly come before the court in its consideration of death-penalty cases.

The justices already have agreed to hear argument over whether prosecutors improperly excluded all four African-American prospective jurors from the death penalty trial of another black defendant. That argument will take place in the fall.

At Fults' trial in 1997, Buffington told the judge and lawyers on both sides that he harbored no racial prejudice. Fults pleaded guilty to killing Bounds and a jury then sentenced him to death.

But eight years later, an investigator who was part of Fults' legal team spoke to Buffington about his experience on the jury. Buffington, 79, at the time of the interview, twice used the slur in describing Fults.

"Once he pled guilty, I knew I would vote for the death penalty because that's what that (N-word) deserved," Buffington said, according to the signed, April 12, 2005 affidavit in the court record.

Court papers offer no explanation for why eight years elapsed between the trial and Buffington's comments to the investigator.

Published: Wed, Sep 16, 2015