Nevada high court: Racial comments tainted Black man's trial

This undated photo provided by the Nevada Department of Corrections shows Sean Maurice Dean, 55. The Nevada Supreme Court has thrown out Dean's conviction in 2019 on attempted murder and other felonies in an Elko stabbing case. The state high court ruled that Dean's trial was tainted by "harmful racial stereotypes" expressed by Dean's defense attorney during pretrial questioning of prospective jurors. (Nevada Department of Corrections via AP)

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Nevada Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction of a Black man who was found guilty in Elko of attempted murder and other violent felonies, ruling that his jury was tainted by “harmful racial stereotypes” during pretrial questioning by his defense attorney.

The unanimous ruling by a three-justice panel, issued Jan. 13, could get Sean Maurice Dean a new trial in a stabbing case that resulted in 2019 in a sentence of 12 to 31 years in prison. Dean, now 55, is being held at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

Dean’s trial attorney, Gary Woodbury, in Elko, declined to comment about the ruling when reached Thursday by telephone.

The state high court found that Dean received ineffective legal assistance, calling Woodbury’s questioning of prospective jurors about their racial attitudes “flawed and inappropriate.”

“Counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and resulted in prejudice,” Justices Lidia Stiglich, James Hardesty and Mark Gibbons said.

Woodbury, a lawyer in Nevada for 45 years, is white. He testified during a post-conviction evidentiary hearing that he tried through the questions he posed to prospective jurors to “bring out the unconscious racial biases present ‘in all of us.'”

No member of the prospective jury appeared to be African American, Elko County District Court Judge Alvin Kacin noted in an April 2020 order that denied Dean a new trial.

In a note to himself during jury selection, court records show Woodbury wrote: “All the defense is asking you to do is get your information from the witness stand — not from … what you might have heard from some undefined someone years ago.”

The justices found Woodbury’s questioning “impermissibly tainted the jury pool by introducing racial invective into the proceedings.”

“Counsel insisted that the prospective jurors must have heard that all African Americans ‘like watermelon’ or ‘have an attribute of violence, that they are sneaky,'” the justices said. “Whether counsel himself believed any of the offensive stereotypes is immaterial because bringing such racial invective into the courtroom cannot be justified.”

“We do not believe that counsel’s concluding remarks about not evaluating Dean by his race cured the prejudicial effect of counsel’s earlier statements about African Americans,” the court said.

Dean, who had previous felony convictions, was found guilty of attempted murder and battery with a deadly weapon for stabbing Bert “Duff” Minter and Denise Minter, a divorced couple, during a fight at Denise Minter’s trailer home. Dean testified that he and Denise Minter had had a romantic relationship, according to court records.

The Supreme Court also faulted the judge, who was appointed to the Fourth Judicial District Court bench in 2011. It said Kacin could have told Woodbury outside the presence of prospective jurors to change his line of questioning.

Kacin responded to messages through a court aide who said the judge could not comment on a pending case.

“In this case, counsel’s conduct of discussing harmful racial stereotypes warranted intervention by the trial judge,” the state high court said. “Instead, the (prospective jurors) may have seen the judge’s silence as normalizing, or even tacitly approving, counsel’s offensive questioning.”

Elko County District Attorney Tyler Ingram did not immediately respond to messages about a new trial for Dean.