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Originally published Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 3:48 PM

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Court to review raunchy gifts in Ga. death trial

A 1993 Georgia death penalty case will get fresh scrutiny from a federal court because of allegations that a juror sent raunchy gifts made of chocolate to the judge and a courtroom bailiff at the end of the trial.

Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA —

A 1993 Georgia death penalty case will get fresh scrutiny from a federal court because of allegations that a juror sent raunchy gifts made of chocolate to the judge and a courtroom bailiff at the end of the trial.

A federal appeals panel on Monday ordered the review weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court raised questions about the case of Marcus Wellons, who was convicted and sentenced to death for raping and strangling a 15-year-old.

Wellons' attorneys base their appeal on a juror's decision to give a piece of white chocolate in the shape of a penis to the judge.

"Who would think that chocolate would get out of hand like this?" said Karen Mandel, who made the erotic candy for a friend on the jury.

Wellons was convicted of the 1989 murder of India Roberts, a high school sophomore from the Atlanta suburbs. Jurors were sequestered during the tense two-week trial, and near the end juror Mary Jo Hooper said Mandel made her a few dozen handmade chocolates to share with jurors and court staffers.

The package of candies was screened by a bailiff who saw the penis-shaped white chocolate along with a note that read: "Just to remind you of what you're missing." Hooper said she was shocked when she saw it and quickly put the candy away.

She said she was later told that Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley wanted to see it after trial.

After the jurors returned the verdict, Hooper said she quietly pulled the candy from her purse and told the judge to open it after she left the jury room.

"There was never impropriety at all and there was no intent of any wrongdoing," said Hooper, 63. "It was purely a friend's sense of humor."

Staley would not comment on the specifics of the case pending the investigation, but she said she promptly threw the chocolate away.

Wellons' attorneys also claimed that jurors gave a court bailiff chocolate in the shape of women's breasts. Hooper, though, said there were no candy breasts in the package.

The appeals were rejected by several courts, but a divided Supreme Court ruling gave Wellons hope in January.

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In a 5-4 unsigned opinion, the court found "the disturbing facts of this case raise serious questions concerning the conduct of the trial" and ordered the federal appeals court to take a new look at the case because of the questionable gifts.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case again, and on Monday ordered a U.S. District judge to allow Wellons' lawyers to investigate why the gifts were given. It also directed the judge to hold an evidentiary hearing if necessary.

The panel's opinion noted the "extraordinary circumstances" of the case but suggested there may have been no wrongdoing.

"No court that has reviewed this case has been comfortable with these gifts," the opinion read. "Yet, troubling facts do not automatically give rise to a legal claim."

Both Staley and Hooper said they would welcome an investigation to clear up any confusion about what happened.

"Everybody there was a very high caliber person and no one was remotely interested in doing anything but our duty," Hooper said.

Staley said she is frustrated the issue wasn't reviewed sooner.

"I don't understand why it hasn't been looked into before. All this time has passed and memories are going to fade," the judge said. "If there's concerns, you might as well investigate it, find out what the situation is."

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On the Net:

http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/

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