Day: October 13, 2012

There’s no real argument for the death penalty by James Varney “opinion”

October 13, 2012

Three stories — or, more accurately, two stories and a column — have led to thoughts about that ever contentious issue, the death penalty.

The first was a justice corkscrew at Tulane and Broad detailed by reporter John Simerman, a tale of shifting heroes and villains. In it, a rapist was briefly represented by the Innocence Project, a prominent arm of the anti-death penalty movement that has a strong case — namely, not every person on death row is guilty. Yet for reasons I can’t fully understand, I don’t find that reason to dispose of the death penalty. In part, this view may be colored by the Innocence Project’s paladin, Gary Scheck, who proclaims DNA evidence infallible. Which it may be, unless the blood of two murder victims is splattered all over O.J. Simpson’s car and house, in which case the DNA was planted or contaminated, as Scheck argued while springing The Juice.

I could have sworn O.J. did it, but that’s what high-priced defense lawyers do, I suppose, and it’s true Scheck’s work elsewhere has freed some innocent men from a living hell on death row.

In fact, the column in question is just that sort of case. Damon Thibodeaux was sent to Angola’s death row for raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl under the Huey P. Long Bridge in 1996. Problem was, Thibodeaux didn’t do the crime and the Innocence Project helped prove it. Consequently, Thibodeaux was freed last month, and Denny LeBoeuf, formerly of the Death Penalty Resource Center in New Orleans, penned an op-ed about it for The Times-Picayune.

Thibodeaux’s case hinged on a bogus confession, a thing LeBoeuf pointed out talented law enforcement officers constantly guard against. Yet here we have a man — not guilty — dreading the lethal needles the state planned to plunge into his veins. He has escaped the jaws of death, which is all to the good, and whether one finds that alone reason to halt executions, there is no gainsaying the argument in favor of them is now diminished.

Thibodeaux can’t be made whole any more than the family of the girl who was killed, but does the death penalty’s existence mean similar tragedies won’t be visited on others? Here we turn to the death penalty’s supposed deterrent properties.

And here we turn to the other recent story, reporter Claire Galofaro’s magisterial three-part tale of the men accused of gunning down two St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputies and wounding two more. These alleged warped souls floated across the landscape from Nebraska to Louisiana like modern Charles Starkweathers, apparently willing, even eager, to kill.

Was the death penalty any sort of deterrent to these seething misfits? Has the fear of the death penalty — a sentence quite real in New Orleans and Louisiana — in any way crimped the appalling violence that sends so many New Orleanians to an early grave?

Well, it may have — that’s a hard one to gauge — but if it has, the impact has been marginal at best. The argument in favor of execution shrinks again.

So we appear to have but one plank left in favor of executions: the succor it may provide crime victims’ survivors. Here most of us, thankfully, are at sea because thus far we’ve been spared that nightmare.

That’s always seemed one of the best arguments in favor of execution while simultaneously the most disquieting. Where does the state — why does the state — become an instrument of retribution? There are Biblical passages supporting the death penalty as a legal recourse, but are these life and death matters not better left in God’s hands? Doesn’t the death penalty then skirt dangerously close to revenge killing, a thing civilized society should shun?

I don’t presume to speak for victims’ families, but years of covering capital cases and witnessing two executions at Angola have shown me that seeking a death for a death is not uniform among them. The quality of their mercy is an awesome, humbling thing, and one it seems to me should be embraced.

So what do we have: Guilty? Not always. Deterrent? Unlikely. Morally? Dubious. LeBoeuf is correct: the death penalty should be abolished.


James Varney can be reached at


FLORIDA -Timothy Wayne Fletcher receives death penalty for 2009 murder for the murder of Helen Googe

OCTOBER 13, 2012

Timothy Wayne Fletcher took his time shuffling toward the bench Friday, perhaps wondering if they would be his last shackled steps before becoming a condemned man.

About 40 minutes later, his fears were confirmed.

Judge Wendy Berger cited the heinous nature of his crime before handing Fletcher, 28, a sentence of death for the murder of Helen Googe in April 2009.

“The aggravating factors far outweigh the mitigating circumstances,” Berger said.

In fact, Berger went further, saying the aggravating factor of the crime being “heinous, atrocious and cruel” by itself was enough to outweigh the 15 mitigating factors that she outlined before giving her sentencing ruling.

Describing the crime, Berger said she gave great weight to the testimony of doctors about the horrible experience of a victim being strangled to death as Googe was. She mentioned the testimony’s indication of the victim’s consciousness at the time of the strangulation. Berger made a point of the physician’s statement that the victim surely experienced a sense of impending doom.“There can be no doubt this murder was conscious and pitiless,” Berger said.

By the time Berger had given her ruling, Fletcher had been standing in front of the courtroom next to attorney Garry Wood, listening to the judge detail the horrors of the crime and then the aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

When it was finished, Fletcher’s eyes were red, and his face clearly bore the weight of the decision, but he showed no other emotion and said nothing in front of the court. The courtroom, crowded with law enforcement officers and family members, remained mostly silent, even after the sentence was announced.

Fletcher’s hearing wrapped up the two-defendant case. The co-defendant, Doni Ray Brown, accepted an offer of life in prison with no possibility for parole and entered a plea of no contest for first-degree murder.

Brown and Fletcher broke out of jail in Putnam County on April 15, 2009, stole a vehicle and then went to the home of Googe to rob her.

When she claimed not to have the large amount of cash the men were demanding, they beat her and eventually strangled her.

Fletcher and Brown fled the state but were later apprehended when they returned to Florida.

Berger noted that in interviews with investigators, Fletcher had repeatedly denied being the one who actually committed the murder, blaming it on Brown. He eventually admitted to holding Googe down while Brown finished the killing.

In no way did that absolve Fletcher from the full responsibility of the crime, the state argued.

“It is clear from the facts of this case that the defendant showed no mercy to the victim during the brutally violent robbery and murder,” State Attorney R.J. Larizza said in a statement. “It is fitting that he received no mercy from the court when he was sentenced today.”

The death penalty was sought because Fletcher was the mastermind of the escape and robbery.

The forensic evidence also implicated Fletcher in the struggle with Googe before her death.

“It was the defendant, not Doni Brown, with scratches on his arms,” Berger said. “It was the defendant who killed her.”

Before Berger started reading her decision, Wood mentioned the Brown sentencing and said that Fletcher would have accepted a similar offer if one had been offered before trial.

Berger said that she gave Brown’s sentence “great weight” in deciding Fletcher’s fate. In fact, it was the only mitigating factor that she gave more than moderate weight to.

Among the issues she considered were Fletcher’s long-term substance abuse problems, his dysfunctional family life and behavior at his original trial.

In May, a jury found Fletcher guilty on all counts as charged in the murder of Googe and the crimes related to the defendant’s jail escape in April 2009. Fletcher was found guilty of escape, a second-degree felony; grand theft motor vehicle, a third-degree felony; first-degree murder, a capital felony; home invasion robbery, a first-degree felony; and grand theft motor vehicle, a third-degree felony.

On Friday, Putnam County Circuit Judge Carlos Mendoza sentenced Brown, 26, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Brown pleaded no contest.

Tennessee death-row inmate’s conviction overturned – Michael Dale Rimmer

October 12, 2012

8:33PM EDT October 12. 2012 – A Tennessee judge on Friday overturned the conviction and death sentence of a man who has spent 14 years on death row over the killing of an ex-girlfriend whose body was never found.

A USA TODAY investigation last year showed that Memphis prosecutors responsible for the case never told the man, Michael Dale Rimmer, or his lawyers, about an eyewitness who had told the police that two different men were inside the office around the time she disappeared, and that both had blood on their hands. One of the men that the witness identified was already wanted in connection with a stabbing.

Document: Court order

Shelby County Judge James C. Beasley Jr. wrote in a 212-page order released late Friday afternoon that Rimmer’s trial lawyers repeatedly failed to unearth that evidence, a “devastating” blow to his contention that someone else committed the crime. That problem was compounded, the judge wrote, because the lead prosecutor in the case, Thomas Henderson, made “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to defense lawyers denying that the evidence existed.

The case is the latest black eye for prosecutors in Memphis, who have been faulted repeatedly for failing to disclose evidence that could be helpful to defendants. In 2008, for example, a federal appeals court blasted the office in another death penalty case for a “set of falsehoods” that was “typical of the conduct of the Memphis district attorney’s office.” At least two other cases handled by Henderson — who went on to supervise all of Memphis’ criminal prosecutions — have come under scrutiny over similar lapses.
Beasley on Friday accused Henderson of “purposefully” misleading Rimmer’s lawyers, and making “comments to counsel and the court were both intellectually dishonest and may have been designed to gain a tactical advantage.”

Still, Beasley wrote, that conduct alone wasn’t enough to overturn Rimmer’s conviction and death sentence, because his lawyers could have discovered the evidence on their own if they had looked more carefully. Instead, he said, it was the “seriously deficient” investigation by Rimmer’s “overburdened” lawyers that required him to order a new trial.

John Campbell, Shelby County’s deputy district attorney general, said Friday he had not read the entire order and could not comment on specific findings. But he said prosecutors would either appeal the decision or re-try Rimmer for Ricci Ellsworth’s murder. “I can’t imagine ever not re-prosecuting the case,” he said.
Rimmer’s new lawyer, Kelly Gleason, said she “happy and relieved that the court has set aside this unjust conviction.”

Ellsworth, Rimmer’s former girlfriend, disappeared from the office of a seedy Memphis motel where she worked as an overnight clerk in February 1997, leaving behind only an office and bathroom soaked with blood. Her body has never been located.

Rimmer, then 30, was the obvious suspect. The two had dated, but the relationship soured, and Rimmer eventually went to prison for raping her. There, other prisoners said, he repeatedly threatened to kill Ellsworth, suggesting that he could make sure she was not found. Rimmer was arrested in Indiana a month after Ellsworth disappeared; police there found blood on the back seat of the car he was driving that they later said was consistent with samples taken from the motel office and from Ellsworth’s mother.

Still, a witness who visited the motel office around the time Ellsworth disappeared told the police that he had seen two different men inside, both with blood on their hands. When FBI agents showed him photographs of possible suspects that included a photo of Rimmer, he picked out a different man, Billy Wayne Voyles, who was already wanted in connection with an unrelated stabbing.

Rimmer’s lawyers, Beasley wrote, were unaware of those facts, though they could have learned of the witness’ identification if they had reviewed the “residual” evidence in the court clerk’s vault. Instead, he wrote, they relied on Henderson’s repeated representations that no such evidence existed. As a result, he wrote, the jurors who found Rimmer guilty of the murder and sentenced him to die never heard about it.

That witness, James Darnell, told a court for the first time that he had seen one of the men carry what looked like a heavy object wrapped in a comforter out of the motel office and load it into the trunk of a car.