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Why the Jordan Davis murder was not a death-penalty case and update on Jodi Arias

Cross Posted from Frederick Leatherman Law Blog

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Good morning:

Several readers have asked why the prosecution did not seek the death penalty in the Michael Dunn case.

It is not a death-penalty case.

The death penalty is reserved for the most egregious premeditated murders. In other words, it applies to premeditated murders with “aggravating circumstances” that are listed in the death-penalty statute.

For example, a premeditated intent to kill a witness to a crime you have committed in order to conceal the crime you have committed is an aggravating circumstance that qualifies for the death penalty. A rape murder qualifies where the purpose of the murder is to prevent the victim from reporting the rape and identifying the rapist.

Other examples are premeditated murders of certain people such as police officers, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and children under age 12.

Another example that might have applied to Dunn, if he had killed the other boys in the Dodge Durango, is multiple victims. This statutory aggravating factor also would apply to terrorist bombings, such as the Oklahoma City and Boston Marathon bombings.

The Jodi Arias case provides another example. She is charged with killing her former boyfriend, Travis Alexander, with premeditation and the aggravating factor alleged in the indictment is that she killed him in a “cruel, heinous, or depraved” manner. Wikipedia describes the killing:

The killing of Travis Alexander occurred on June 4, 2008. On June 9, 2008, Alexander’s body was discovered by his friends in a shower at his home in Mesa, Arizona. Alexander had been stabbed repeatedly, with a slit throat and a fatal gunshot wound to the head. There have been conflicting reports over the number of stab wounds; some reports state that Alexander had been stabbed 29 times, while others state 27 times. Medical examiner Kevin Horn testified that Alexander’s jugular vein, common carotid artery, and windpipe had been slashed. Alexander had defensive wounds on his hands. Horn further testified that Alexander “may have” been dead at the time the gunshot was inflicted, and that the back wounds were shallow. Alexander’s death was ruled a homicide. He was buried at the Olivewood Cemetery in Riverside, California.

Arias was convicted of premeditated murder, but the jury was unable to unanimously agree that death was the appropriate penalty.

The parties are now attempting to select a new penalty-phase jury. ABC News is reporting that more than half of the 400 prospective jurors have been dismissed because they were too familiar with the case and could not fairly and impartially evaluate the evidence in deciding whether she should be sentenced to death or life without possibility of parole.

The effort to select a jury continues today.

Unfortunately, there is no television or live-stream coverage.

There is no murder for which the death penalty is automatic. In every case, the jury must weigh the aggravating circumstances (i.e., the circumstances of the crime committed and the defendant’s prior record, if any) against the mitigating circumstances (e.g., circumstances about the defendant such as mental illness or developmental disability) before deciding on the appropriate penalty. In Arizona the jury has to unanimously agree that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt such that death is the appropriate sentence.

There is no limit to what may be considered in mitigation, including mercy.

Pursuant to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), defendants who were less than 16-years-old or intellectually disabled (i.e., IQ less than 70) when they committed the offense cannot be sentenced to death.

Two reasons why the State of Massachusetts is not seeking the death penalty against Philip Chism:

1) He was less than 16-years-old

2) Massachusetts does not have a death penalty.

The Boston Marathon bombing case is a death penalty case because the federal government is prosecuting the defendant and there is a federal death penalty.

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.

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