A federal appeals panel has reversed a death sentence of a Georgia man convicted of the 1989 kidnap and murder of a pregnant woman.

The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Tuesday upheld the convictions against James Ray Ward. But it found there was "improper bailiff-jury communication" during the penalty phase of his trial and ordered a new sentencing hearing.

A Walker County jury convicted Ward of feticide and the kidnapping and murder of 23-year-old Nikia Gilbreath. Ward argued in appeals that jurors asked a bailiff during deliberations whether they could impose a sentence of life without parole, and the bailiff told them it wasn’t an option.

The appeals panel found that it violated Ray’s right to an impartial jury and that the communication should have handled in court.

Ward was also arrested for the December 1989 rape of a Gordon County woman.

According to court documents, the Gordon County woman later told police that Ward had taken her to an abandoned home and told her it was a "good place to dump bodies."

RNT