Tuesday, 12 June 2007

U.S. Supreme Court rejects Va. death row inmate appeal

By NATASHA ROBINSON Associated Press Writer

June 11, 2007 RICHMOND, Va. -- The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from a man sentenced to death in Virginia for the murder of a 16-year old girl in 1999. Paul Warner Powell, 29, filed a petition for review and was denied, Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine Baldwin said in a telephone interview. The justices did not comment on the action.

Powell's lawyer, Jonathan Sheldon, said in a telephone interview that the prosecutor in the case gave jurors a computer printout of Powell's prior convictions instead of certified copies. The printouts showed that Powell had a murder conviction although he had none--a huge error, Sheldon said. "It is so astounding that I haven't found a similar case where it's happened and the case has not been reversed," Sheldon said. Sheldon said three Virginia Supreme Court justices felt it was a serious mistake and said so in a dissenting opinion when the court denied Powell's petition challenging his imprisonment last September.

"I cannot imagine a more prejudicial error in the admission of sentencing evidence," Justice Barbara Milano Keenan wrote in the dissent, which was joined by Justices Elizabeth Lacy and Lawrence Koontz. "Such a serious mistake in a capital murder case may well cause the public to question whether our courts adequately ensure the fair application of our death penalty statute." The majority concluded, however, that the jury's consideration of Powell's past criminal offenses is related to the issue of future dangerousness. "The instruction given to the jury on this issue and the verdict form confirm that the jury was instructed to consider the defendant's criminal history only with regard to future dangerousness," Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. wrote on behalf of the majority. "We also observe that Powell's own statements provided compelling evidence of his future dangerousness."

Powell, who was initially scheduled to be executed in February, received a stay of execution on Jan. 25. That stay was lifted last week and Baldwin said authorities are planning to set a new execution date this week. Powell was convicted of capital murder a second time after he bragged in a letter to prosecutors in October 2001 that he killed and tried to rape Stacey Reed of Manassas. He wrote the letter after his first capital murder conviction from 2000 was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court, mistakenly believing he couldn't face the death penalty a second time.

The letter was used as evidence in his second trial and a jury recommended the death penalty in May 2003. He also raped and stabbed Stacey's 14-year old sister Kristie Reed, but she survived and testified against him.

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