A Black man is entitled to a new trial after an all-White jury deliberated in a room filled with Confederate symbols, court says
By Alisha Ebrahimji, CNN
(CNN) -- A Tennessee court has decided a Black man convicted of aggravated assault deserves a new trial because evidence was improperly admitted and the jury deliberated in a room filled with tributes to the Confederacy, according to court documents.
Judge James Curwood Witt Jr. said in an opinion filed last week that the room's decorations honored a Confederacy that "not only defended slavery, but endorsed it fully using dehumanizing and racist language."
Tim Gilbert, 55, was sentenced in June 2020 to six years in prison for aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, resisting arrest, and unlawful possession of a weapon after having been previously convicted of a felony, according to jail records and court documents. The charges are from a family gathering on Christmas Eve in 2018, according to court documents.
On Friday, Witt decided that Gilbert's defense provided enough evidence to show how a jury could have been influenced by symbols in the room and said, "the State failed to sufficiently rebut the presumption of prejudice." Additionally, he found that the trial court allowed a witness statement that shouldn't have been admitted.
Shortly after Gilbert's conviction, he and his attorney, Evan Baddour, filed an appeal. Tennessee Circuit Judge Stella Hargrove denied it in August 2020, court records show.
According to Baddour, all 12 jurors were White and they met in "The U.D.C. Room" inside the Giles County Courthouse in Pulaski, Tennessee, named after The United Daughters of the Confederacy, a 127-year-old organization founded in Nashville to honor the Confederacy.
CNN reached out to The United Daughters of The Confederacy for comment.
The door to the room is also marked with the first national flag used by the Confederate States of America, the court decision details. Inside the room are a framed Confederate flag and portraits of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Confederate Gen. John C. Brown, the decision says.
The judge who presided over Gilbert's trial said juries have deliberated in the room for the 43 years that he had been active in the legal community.
"The record contains no evidence to explain how the U.D.C., a private organization, came to possess a dedicated room in the Giles County Courthouse in... the 1930s," the appeals court wrote.
Based on those findings, Witt wrote that the documents and symbols displayed in the room were symbols of a Confederacy that "not only defended slavery, but endorsed it fully using dehumanizing and racist language" and "establish that slavery and the subjugation of black people are inextricably intertwined with the Confederacy and the symbols thereof."
The appeals court also said that a challenged witness statement should not have been admitted, an error that "cannot be classified as harmless," court documents said.
"Accordingly, we reverse the judgments of the trial court and remand the case for a new trial," Witt wrote.
No date has been set for a new trial.
"We are obviously pleased with the opinion rendered by the Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday, and believe the Court's opinion speaks for itself," Baddour told CNN in a statement Monday. "There is still much to be done, and we are eager to continue fighting for Mr. Gilbert and the right of the criminally accused to receive a fair trial."
The Tennessee Attorney General's Office is "closely reviewing the Court's decision and considering next steps," Samantha Fisher
, director of communications, told CNN Monday in an emailed statement.
CNN has reached out to the Giles County Court Clerk's office to learn if any changes are being made to the "U.D.C." room following the court's ruling.
Last year, more than 160 Confederate symbols came down nationwide, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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