Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of April 52021

NEWS (4/8/21) — Nevada: The Nevada Supreme Court has granted capital defendant Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman’s emergency motion to stay a premature deadline the trial court had set for his lawyers to file a claim that he is ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. A trial court in Reno had set an April 20 deadline for Martinez-Guzman, four months earlier than the time allotted under Nevada law, which permits a defendant to file up to ten days before the scheduled start of trial. The court’s unanimous decision did not explain why it granted the stay. However, Martinez-Guzman’s lawyers argued that the trial court deadline impaired their ability to investigate and present evidence to establish his ineligibility for the death penalty.

Martinez-Guzman is a Salvadoran national. Proof of intellectual disability requires providing evidence of deficits in daily functioning that were present before age 18, and his lawyers told the court that COVID-19 travel restrictions have made it impossible to investigate and interview witnesses in El Salvador to obtain necessary evidence about Martinez-Guzman’s childhood impairments. “This court must allow him the opportunity to investigate, collect, analyze and marshal the best and most reliable evidence on his intellectual disability,” Martinez-Guzman’s lawyers told the court.

Washoe County prosecutors argued that the defense request was a delay tactic.

NEWS (4/8/21) — Ohio: The Ohio Supreme Court has stayed the scheduled May 26, 2021 execution of David Martin. The court set the execution date in September 2017, when it affirmed Martin’s conviction and death sentence. However, the state failed to appoint a lawyer to represent him in state post-conviction proceedings, causing his time limit for filing federal appeals to expire without ever providing him state post-conviction review of his case. When federal defenders discovered that Martin was unrepresented, they sought appointment in the case and moved to stay his execution.

“It’s shocking to me that this fell through the cracks, that this could go a whole year and nobody could notice this guy didn’t have a lawyer,” assistant federal public defender David Stebbins said. “I thought we had better safeguards in place.” The court granted the stay, which prosecutors did not oppose, “pending disposition of … all state postconviction proceedings, including any appeals.”

NEWS (4/6/21) — Alabama: In an unpublished opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the death sentence imposed on Kenneth Smith by an Alabama trial judge in 1996 after the sentencing jury had voted 11-1 to spare Smith’s life. No state in the United States any longer permits trial judges to override jury votes for life.

After the federal district court denied Smith’s habeas corpus petition, the appeals court granted Smith permission to appeal a single issue, whether the district court erred in holding that Smith was not prejudiced by his trial counsel’s failure to object to the validity of the search warrant issued in his case. The court denied that claim, holding that the warrant, though failing to comply with the letter of Alabama law, did not violate Alabama law and was not invalid.

NEWS (4/6/21) — Oklahoma: After a one-day penalty phase, an Oklahoma County jury has recommended that Derrick Laday be sentenced to death for a 2015 murder. Laday was one of eight defendants charged in stabbing a man to death, moving his body to a location under a bridge, and then setting a fire to burn the body and destroy evidence. The other seven — including Laday’s brother and girlfriend — pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Laday was permitted to waive his right to counsel and represented himself in the guilt phase of the trial. Stand-by counsel took over the case for the short penalty phase.