Former Tennessee Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has overturned the conviction of former death row inmate Steven James Rollins, ruling that he be granted a new trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel and being denied his right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury.

Rollins was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 for the 2001 robbery and stabbing death of James T. Bussell, the owner of Bussell’s Fisherman’s Paradise bait shop near Kingsport. In 2010, a local judge overturned Rollins’ death sentence and granted him a new sentencing hearing, but not a new trial. Rollins appealed this decision and last week the appellate court found sufficient reason to overturn his convictions and sent the case back to Sullivan County Criminal Court for a new trial. Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus said the state plans to appeal this decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The appellate court agreed with Rollins’ claim that his trial attorneys failed to properly question prospective jurors and that a particular juror had apparent bias. This juror admitted in affidavits that he had known the victim and bought bait from him every week. He said “I had my mind made up as soon as they seated the jury. I could tell by looking at him that he was a crook.” He also stated his belief that “death is the only appropriate punishment” for a person convicted of murder, and adds “but no one asked me about my opinion.”

Rollins had also argued that his mental retardation exempts him from the death penalty but the appellate court declined to address this issue, stating it is a “moot point” since he will have an opportunity to make that argument if he should reach another sentencing hearing. Hopefully the Tennessee Supreme Court will uphold the appellate court’s decision and Rollins can finally have a trial with the adequate representation and fair and impartial jury that every defendant deserves.

Photo courtesy of The Kingsport Times-News

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