Monday, March 28, 2011

Defense lawyer to challenge sentencing scheme in capital murder case

Belton - Defense attorneys and prosecutors picked a 7-woman, 5-man jury today to hear the case against three defendants accused of the capital murder-for-hire of a Ft. Hood Armored Cavalary soldier in October of 2008.

Judge Martha Trudo of Bell County's 264th State District Court told the panel she expects the attorneys will give them the case to decide guilt or innocence of the accused some time late Friday and explained that they will have to decide the case based on three separate jury charges for the three accused.

The State is not seeking the death penalty, Prosecutor Murff Bledsoe told the special venire of 100 summoned to court on the agreement of the six defense attorneys and two prosecutors.

The only possible sentence for the defendants if they are found guilty will be life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Therein lies the defense strategy laid out by the attorney for the former girlfriend of the victim, Katherine “Nellie” Briggs, a 28-year-old Austin woman who allegedly recruited two fellow soldiers to kill her former boyfriend, Sgt. Michael Ryan Sullivan, for a share of the $100,000 in life insurance benefits she was named to receive in his policy.

In his examination of the veniremen, Jack Holmes let prospective jurors know that he intends to introduce evidence through cross examination of witnesses that will lead to a reasonable doubt as to his client's guilt.

“The state does not have the case,” he explained when questioned by a journalist.

He has introduced a motion challenging the constitutionality of the “sentencing scheme” for the offense of capital murder as laid out in the Texas Penal Code.

“That could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,' he said during a corridor interview. “We're not allowed to present any mitigating evidence...For instance, my client has never been arrested before.”

Judge Trudo assured prospective jurors several times during her introductory remarks to the venire that should evidence of a lesser offense be introduced during the trial, the jurors could be charged with finding the defendant guilty of another offense besides capital murder.

The issue came up during voir dire examination of the prospective jurors by attorneys for Ms. Briggs' co-defendants.

Bucky Harris, who represents John Valdez, who is accused of stabbing Mr. Sullivan to death with an unknown sharp instrument, and Mr. Steve Blythe, who represents his co-defendant, Kyle Moesch, both questioned veniremen closely about their understanding of the Texas law of parties, which holds that if a defendant assisted in any way with the commission of an act that led to the death of a victim, they are just as guilty of the crime as the one who actually did the killing.

It is the prosecution's strategy to prove that the three defendants conspired for the prospect of renumeration to cause the death of Sgt. Sullivan, according to remarks made by Mr. Bledsoe in his examination of the venire.

One man and one woman have been chosen to serve as alternate jurors during the evidence portion of the guilt or innocence phase of the trial. Some 83 witnesses will be examined and evidence in the form of witness statements, crime scene reports and technical data gleaned from 40 full CD's – about 5,000 pages of material – will be presented over the next 4 days.

The judge will allow the jurors to take notes during the trial, but “only sparingly,” because she wishes they should be attentive to the testimony and not their note taking. They will not be allowed to take the notes home with them at night, nor will they be allowed to take them into the jury room with them during deliberations.

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