By Paige Topper

On October 20, 2015, in the criminal case of Porter v. Zook, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit dismissed Thomas Porter’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction. The Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not issue a final decision on Porter’s actual bias claim against a juror during his trial for capital murder of a police officer.

Porter’s Conviction and Habeas Corpus Claim

In 2005, Porter shot and killed a police officer in Norfolk, Virginia. At the time of the murder Porter fled, resulting in a month-long manhunt. Upon his capture, Porter was indicted in the Circuit Court of the City of Norfolk on multiple charges, including a charge of capital murder. The Norfolk Court granted a motion for a change of venue to the Circuit Court of the County of Arlington due to the community outrage over the officer’s death and Porter’s concerns about an impartial jury. Ultimately, a jury convicted Porter on multiple counts, including capital murder. The jury sentenced Porter to death for capital murder.

Following the Supreme Court of Virginia affirming Porter’s capital conviction and death sentence and later dismissing his petition for habeas corpus, Porter filed a federal habeas corpus petition. David Zook, the Warden of Sussex I State Prison, where Porter is incarcerated, moved to dismiss. The district court granted Zook’s motion and dismissed Porter’s petition. However, the district court issued Porter a certificate of appealability, and Porter timely filed his appeal.

Jurisdiction Limited to Final Decisions of the District Court

The Fourth Circuit noted that while the parties to the appeal did not question its jurisdiction, the Court’s jurisdiction is limited to final decisions of the district courts. The Fourth Circuit further elaborated that a district court’s order is not final until it has resolved all claims as to all parties. This rule holds firm regardless of the label given to the district court decision. Thus, the issuance of a certificate of appealability does not alone establish that the district court resolved all claims between the parties.

District Court Failed to Rule on Porter’s Actual Bias Claim

Porter’s petition raised multiple claims. Among his claims, Porter alleged a violation of the right to trial by an impartial jury. Porter’s claim argued that one of the jurors, Bruce Treakle, was actually biased against Porter because Treakle’s brother was a deputy sheriff in the jurisdiction next to Norfolk, Virginia, at all relevant times to the case. Treakle failed to disclose the information regarding his brother’s profession during voir dire when asked whether he had any members of his close personal family in law enforcement in any capacity as a volunteer or employee.

As a result of Treakle’s relationship to a deputy sheriff, Porter claimed that Treakle was not a fair and impartial juror. To support his claim, Porter pointed to both Treakle’s conduct at voir dire and to Treakle’s admission during an interview with Porter’s counsel that he was emotionally moved by the testimony of the fallen officer’s widow. In addition, the Warden addressed Porter’s actual bias claim separately in his motion to dimiss.

Despite both parties’ focus on the actual bias claim, the district court dismissed Porter’s petition without ruling on this claim. The Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not acknowledge a distinct actual bias claim. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit concluded that, because the district court failed to rule on Porter’s actual bias claim, the district court never issued a final decision on all Porter’s claims. Consequently, the Fourth Circuit lacked jurisdiction over the case.

Fourth Circuit Dismissed and Remanded

The Fourth Circuit dismissed Porter’s appeal for lack of jurisdiction and remanded the case so that the district court could decide Porter’s actual bias claim.