Capital Case Roundup — Death Penalty Court Decisions the Week of May 102021

NEWS (5/14/21) — North Carolina: A Rowan County trial judge has resentenced William Barnes to consecutive life sentences for the murders of an elderly North Carolina couple in 1992, after the county district attorney’s office declined to pursue a new capital sentencing hearing. The district attorney’s decision, made with the agreement of the victims’ family, followed a federal appeals court ruling that had overturned Barnes’ death sentences because of juror misconduct.

In September 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated Barnes’ death sentences because one of his jurors had improperly consulted her pastor about her decision and then communicated the pastor’s advice to fellow jurors. The court held that the juror’s misconduct violated Barnes’ right to an impartial jury and to a verdict based solely on the evidence and the law, not on external factors.

NEWS (5/12/21) — Texas: A divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has vacated Carnell Petetan Jr.’s death sentence and remanded his case for a new sentencing hearing at which the jury is to consider his claim of intellectual disability using current diagnostic criteria.

In 2014, a jury in McClennan County sentenced Petetan to death for the murder of his wife, rejecting his claim that was ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. The appeals court upheld the jury’s finding in 2017, applying an overly restrictive definition of intellectual disability that the U.S. Supreme subsequently declared unconstitutional in Moore v. Texas. After Moore was decided, the Texas court granted Petetan’s motion to reconsider his appeal. The court noted that “[e]xpert after expert diagnosed [Petetan] with mild intellectual disability.” Finding that “the evidence was factually insufficient to support the jury’s rejection of the intellectual disability special issue,” it returned the case to the trial court for a new penalty hearing.

NEWS (5/12/21) — Florida: The Eleventh Circuit has affirmed Mark Geralds’ death sentence on federal habeas appeal.

On appeal, Geralds contended that the prosecution suppressed several pieces of exculpatory evidence. The court ruled that the fact that the evidence did not appear in trial counsel’s file and counsel failed to ask witnesses questions that appeal counsel thought he would have asked if we were aware of the evidence did not constitute clear and convincing proof that the prosecution had withheld the documents.

Geralds also asserted that the prosecution had obtained his conviction by knowingly presenting or failing to correct false testimony at trial. During the trial, an investigator testified that he had observed testing that indicated blood was found on Geralds’ left shoe. In fact, tests found no human blood on the shoe. The appeals court held that, while the testimony was misleading, it was not clearly false, so the state court’s denial of relief on the claim was not unreasonable. The investigator also testified that he had confirmed the alibi offered by an alternate suspect that he was at work at the time of the murder. In fact, the work records showed that he had been at work that day but did not indicate whether he was still there when the crime occurred, and the investigator’s notes indicated that the potential suspect “would leave work alot [sic].” The Eleventh Circuit held that the state court had not unreasonably determined the facts when it concluded that the investigator had in fact confirmed the alibi.

NEWS (5/11/21) — Tennessee: The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld a trial court ruling denying a request by the estate of executed death-row prisoner Sedley Alley for posthumous DNA testing of physical evidence from his 1985 murder case.

Alley was executed in 2006, after Tennessee’s courts denied his request for DNA testing. The Tennessee Supreme Court subsequently overruled its decision, saying it had erroneously interpreted the law. After new evidence emerged pointing to another possible perpetrator, Alley’s daughter, acting on behalf of the estate, filed a petition requesting testing under the state’s Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act, which authorizes convicted persons to apply for DNA testing to show they were wrongfully convicted.

The trial court denied the estate’s request and the estate appealed to Tennessee’s intermediate criminal appeals court. The appeals court affirmed the trial court ruling, holding that the civil right of survivorship did not apply to the DNA act and that the estate was therefore not a “person” entitled to testing. It further held that neither due process nor the estate’s interest in vindicating Alley’s reputation provided a basis for requiring posthumous testing under the DNA act.