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Old 02-20-2002, 06:08 PM
Tricia46311 Tricia46311 is offline
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Default Indiana may end death penalty

High court case could nullify death sentences


Overturning law that lets judges override juries could empty Death Rows in Indiana, 8 other states.

By Diana Penner

diana.penner@indystar.com

February 20, 2002

Indiana's death penalty law could be ruled unconstitutional -- and the state's Death Row emptied -- by a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Legal observers say it could be one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions on the death penalty since the 1970s. The nation's highest court agreed to hear the appeal of an Arizona murder case last month and is expected to rule on it by this summer.

The prospect of such a sweeping ruling is already having an effect in Indiana. The death penalty trial of the man charged with the September 2000 slaying of a Beech Grove police officer has been delayed, pending the decision.

And lawmakers are taking steps to change Indiana law in reaction to the Arizona appeal.

That case centers on whether judges or juries should have the final say in meting out the death penalty. The question affects nine states, including Indiana. The statutes of those states vary, but in Indiana, juries make sentencing recommendations that are not binding on judges.

The other states that could be affected are Arizona, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska.

"If they rule like they might, . . . then that knocks out the death penalty in nine states," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council. "It would completely wipe out our Death Row."

That is a possible outcome of the Supreme Court ruling, Marion County Prosecutor Scott Newman agreed, but he didn't expect the court to decide that way. He thinks the court decided to hear the Arizona case so it could clearly say the legal issues raised do not apply to the death penalty.

"I think the justices are looking to put this issue to rest and put a stake through its heart," he said.

But it's also possible that some of the justices have waning faith in the death penalty, Newman said, and could see the Arizona case as a way to make those doubts known in legal terms.

"The real wild card is that some of the justices would be wavering on the death penalty," he said.

Newman already has felt the practical effect of the court's decision to hear the Arizona case. He was scheduled this month to begin the murder trial of Benjamin Ritchie in the slaying of Beech Grove Officer William Toney. Newman plans to try the case himself and to seek the death penalty against Ritchie.

The trial has been postponed until July, however, because Indiana's death penalty statute is now in question. The Supreme Court is expected to have ruled by then.

All 40 people on Indiana's Death Row would have to be resentenced if the court throws out the state's capital punishment law, Newman said. Nationwide, the ruling could affect almost 800 inmates.

The death penalty would not be an option at the resentencing, Newman said. Those whose cases were tried before 1993, when Indiana adopted the option of life without parole, would have to be sentenced to a specific number of years in prison.

The Supreme Court has sent signals that it intends to overturn capital punishment in the states involved, according to Monica Foster, an Indianapolis attorney who specializes in death penalty appeals.

She noted the high court has stayed two executions scheduled in Florida, which requires the votes of five of the court's nine justices. "The court doesn't pull people off the gurney if there are not serious, serious questions."

Foster agreed with those who said the case could lead to the most significant death penalty ruling since the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional.

"That's absolutely, without question, correct," she said.

Foster represents Charles Barker in his appeal for his conviction in the 1993 slayings of Francis and Helen Benefiel. That case is before the Indiana Supreme Court and raises issues similar to those to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Arizona case.

"What this really comes down to is: Who knows best? The citizens of the community or the elected judge?" Foster said.

As a practical matter, Indiana judges rarely have imposed death sentences if juries have recommended against it, she said. However, the legal question is the same, Foster said, because the cases were argued under the law that would have allowed that to happen.

In at least one case that resulted in a death sentence in Indiana, a judge did override a jury's recommendation and imposed a death sentence.

Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Ralph Staples worked in northwest Indiana when he prosecuted Christopher Peterson, who now uses the name Obadayah Ben-Yisrayl, who was charged in 1992 for a series of slayings in Lake and Porter counties.

Staples said he is not worried that Ben-Yisrayl ever would walk out of prison, even if the Supreme Court throws out Indiana's death penalty law.

In that case, as in most murder cases, prosecutors filed charges that would effectively ensure the defendant would have to serve a sentence so long that it amounts to a life term, Staples said.

In other states, however, current Death Row inmates could hope for parole if their death sentences are thrown out.

At least in part because of the case before the Supreme Court, Indiana lawmakers are acting to change the state's statute.

A measure that would end a judge's power to override a jury and issue a death sentence was added to another bill raising the minimum age for the death penalty to 18 from 16.

Sen. William Alexa, D-Valparaiso, proposed the amendment. The bill is scheduled to be heard today by a House committee.

Lawmakers worried by the Supreme Court case want to be sure Indiana has a constitutional death penalty law, he said. The issue appears to have attracted support for the bill from some lawmakers, he said, who might not have voted to raise the age of eligibility.

"I think we picked up about 40 votes on jury override," Alexa said.
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Old 02-21-2002, 01:03 PM
Budwoman Budwoman is offline
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Wink Ending Death Penalty

Boy - How I wish North Carolina was on that list of States. There have been so many unjustified Executions in the year 2001 and 2002 that it is unreal. We have almost as many on Death Row as Texas does and have almost executed as Many.

The Death Penalty is not the Answer. As we all can see, it is not a deterrant to Crime. It only executes sometimes the inocent. So many DNA tests have been done lately that have proven death row inmates inocent.

Something is major wrong if we execute people who are inocent.

Please let me hear more about this. I am a member of People of Faith against the Death Penalty in NC and also the NC Branch of Amesnesty International

Thanks for your information
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Old 02-21-2002, 08:27 PM
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Default i hear ya donna

I wish nc was in that list of states also-
hopefully we can do something about changing that....

sherri
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Old 03-15-2002, 03:48 AM
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soraya soraya is offline
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I wish all states were on that list, because murdering someone legally is totally wrong. Indeed too many innocent people are being executed or locked away on death row. Thank God for DNA testings.

How can you punish somebody with the same thing as you convict him for? How can you legally murder a person because that person took somebody's life. I feel with all the victims, but the idea behind the death penalty is wrong, totally wrong
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Old 04-11-2002, 03:27 AM
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any update on this?
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