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The Hartford Courant

Judges Resisting Execution Zeal, Case Resounds Nationally

Bridgeport Case Ruling Resounds Nationally

By LYNNE TUOHY, Courant Staff Writer

November 20, 2003
Copyright ©2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

When Senior U.S. District Judge Alan H. Nevas set aside the murder conviction of Bridgeport drug gang leader Luke Jones earlier this month, he derailed Connecticut's first federal death penalty case in decades, and made a mark on federal death penalty jurisprudence nationally.

Nevas now stands as one of only two judges in the country to set aside a jury verdict in a federal death case on jurisdictional grounds - and the only one to have done so in a case involving urban street crime.

His ruling comes amid increasing skepticism by judges and juries alike of federal death penalty provisions and the zealous pursuit of federal death sentences by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Two New England states with no capital punishment laws - Vermont and Massachusetts - are grappling with controversial federal death cases.

But unlike a number of his colleagues across the country who have sounded cautionary warnings about the liberal application of federal death penalty laws, Nevas eschewed rhetoric. He keyed his decision solely to the facts of Jones' case and relevant case law.

When Nevas acquitted Jones on the murder charge on Nov. 3 - the week before Jones' penalty hearing was to begin - he did not state his reasons. He has done so now, in a 32-page ruling filed late Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors sought a death sentence for Jones under the Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering provision of the federal death penalty statutes. They maintained that he killed Monteneal Lawrence and Anthony Scott to further his drug trafficking enterprise. But the jury - faced with conflicting testimony - acquitted him of killing Scott, leaving Jones to face a death penalty hearing based on the murder of Lawrence.

Nevas ruled that the evidence suggested overwhelmingly that Jones killed Lawrence because Lawrence made a disrespectful comment to Jones' girlfriend, and not for reasons even remotely connected to the drug trafficking enterprise Jones ran in Bridgeport's P.T. Barnum housing project.

"To the contrary," Nevas wrote. "The undisputed evidence shows that Lawrence was not from Bridgeport and had no involvement whatsoever in narcotics trafficking.

"Indeed, there is no evidence to support the government's strained inference that Jones had a generalized need to use violence in response to all acts of disrespect - regardless of whether the disrespect was directed at him personally, or was related to the affairs of the enterprise," Nevas said.

But Nevas said in a footnote that had the jury convicted Jones for the murder of Anthony Scott - a drug rival who had shot a brother of Jones in the face - he would have allowed the death penalty hearing to proceed.

Earlier this year, Virginia U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee said he would not "contort the law of federal kidnapping" by sustaining the kidnapping and murder convictions of former naval intelligence officer Jay Lentz.

Lentz was charged in connection with the April 1996 disappearance of his ex-wife, Doris Lentz. Her bloodstained car was found, but not her body. Lee ruled there was no evidence to support the conviction. Prosecutors are appealing his ruling.

Nevas, likewise, ruled that Jones' killing of Lawrence was not a federal crime.

"Nevas quite properly said it's not a federal case and I'm not going to expose the guy to a federal death hearing if it's not a federal crime," said defense attorney Robert Casale, who represented Jones with Charles Tiernan. "I think it was the wrong case to make as a vanguard federal death penalty case in this district."

Federal prosecutors in Connecticut recommended against pursuing a death sentence for Jones, but were overruled by Ashcroft, a fact Nevas emphasized during arguments on a motion to acquit.

Tiernan said that judges who scrutinize cases that are being machinated into federal death cases see them for what they are.

"In some sense it insults the intelligence of the people deciding these cases," Tiernan said. "Judges who really look at these cases realize [federal prosecutors] are just using them to ratchet them up to death penalty cases. I don't think they like them using the federal system that way."

Nevas let stand all of Jones' other convictions on racketeering and related charges. Jones is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 26.

"No doubt he's going to spend the rest of his life in prison," Casale said. "This is not about finding a technicality to spring a murderer."

Connecticut U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor said Wednesday he will review Nevas' ruling before deciding whether to appeal. Any decision to appeal must be approved by the solicitor general in Washington, he said.

Nevas' ruling has been hailed as "courageous" by numerous defense lawyers, several of whom described him in vernacular more typically reserved for standouts in the world of extreme sports (i.e., it can't be repeated here).

"I suspect Alan Nevas will be on John Ashcroft's dartboard," said New Haven attorney Norman Pattis, who represents one of the defendants in the only federal death case now pending in Connecticut. That case, scheduled to go to trial in May, involves the 1996 contract murder of gang leader Theodore Casiano in Hartford in a dispute over drug turf.

Kentucky attorney Kevin McNally, a coordinator of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council, said the problem of federal prosecutors overreaching in death cases is growing.

"This is the second example of a judge flat-out rejecting such cases and applying a rigorous standard," McNally said, referring to the Jones and Lentz rulings. "For a judge to take this action there has to be no doubt this was not a federal crime."

McNally succinctly summed up the danger he sees in the Justice Department's pursuit of death sentences, particularly in cases that involve inner-city drug and street crimes: putting an innocent man on death row.

"These cases are not based on scientific or physical evidence," McNally said.

"They're based on whoever gets to the federal prosecutor's office first with a story of who did what. In that sense, these cases are the worst for the federal government to handpick, because they're based for the most part exclusively on the testimony of criminal witnesses. It's just a matter of finger-pointing between criminals, and it's hard to figure out whether the guy who's the first one in the door is the one telling the truth."

Federal legislation in 1988 and 1994 vastly expanded the array of federal crimes punishable by death, including murder in the course of a drug-kingpin conspiracy or to further a drug-trafficking enterprise, drive-by shootings and car-jackings that result in death, and some kidnapping and sexual assault crimes that end in death.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno overruled local prosecutors in 26 capital cases during her 51/2 years in office. Ashcroft, in barely half that time in office, has overruled them in 38 out of 96 cases, McNally said.

Federal death penalty prosecutions are in high season in the Northeast.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., federal prosecutors are seeking a death sentence for Emile Dixon, leader of a violent crack-dealing gang who allegedly shot to death a man prepared to testify against a Dixon cohort. If jurors convict him of using violence to bolster his drug enterprise, they will then hear more evidence and determine if he should be sentenced to death.

Dixon's is another case in which Ashcroft's office trumped the initial decision by local prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, a decision based in part upon serious concerns about whether a key witness was lying.

In Vermont, the federal capital prosecution of Donald Fell remains on hold, pending a ruling from the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Vermont U.S. District Judge William Sessions, prior to the start of Fell's trial on carjacking and murder charges, ruled in September 2002 that there are serious constitutional flaws in the federal death penalty scheme. Federal prosecutors have appealed Session's ruling. A decision from the 2nd Circuit could come any time, and is anxiously awaited by lawyers and death penalty analysts.

In Fell's case, Ashcroft directed Vermont federal prosecutors to seek a death sentence despite the fact they had already entered into a plea agreement with Fell that would have resulted in a life sentence.

Clash Of Cultures

Vermont Law School Professor Michael Mello, who lectures on the death penalty and has closely followed the Fell case, said there is some logic in trying to apply the federal death penalty laws more uniformly nationwide.

"But I think what Ashcroft is doing is superimposing not genuine consistency, but a false consistency," Mello said. "It's false in that Wilder, Vt. - where I live - is different in every way that matters from Hartford, which is so vastly different from south central L.A. or Miami."

Mello said there was no public or political clamor in Vermont to seek a death sentence in Fell's case. "It's antithetical to Vermont history, Vermont culture and Vermont law," Mello said. "So I think it's no accident it was a Vermont federal district judge who became the first federal judge in America to declare the 1988 [federal death penalty] statute unconstitutional.

"One of the things that is so very interesting to me about the practical impact of Ashcroft's enthusiastic enforcement of the federal death penalty in a uniform, one-size-fits-all fashion is the resistance that it's getting."

Mello said Ashcroft's wholesale pursuit of death sentences is creating tension between state and county prosecutors and their federal counterparts, especially in jurisdictions with no state death penalty. One striking example is the public criticism by a top state prosecutor in Massachusetts. Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley faulted the quest by federal prosecutors to secure a death sentence against two gang members who allegedly killed a drug rival.

"I do not believe that the death penalty is a deterrent or appropriate punishment for an inner-city homicide," Conley said in August. "... Life without the possibility of parole is the proper punishment for this crime."

He said that pursuit of the death penalty could deter informants and others who cooperate with the police, and also could jeopardize future crime-fighting collaboration between local and federal prosecutors in murder cases.

"What's remarkable about the Suffolk County case is the way in which the frictions have become public," Mello observed. "Those frictions exist elsewhere. They usually remain below the public radar screen, but they're there."

Such tension was not present, however, between local and federal prosecutors in the Luke Jones case. Fairfield State's Attorney Jonathan Benedict, based in Bridgeport, said he was more than happy to have federal prosecutors pursue a death sentence in the course of their crackdown on drug trafficking and violent crime in the Bridgeport area.

"We take these things on a case-by-case basis, and the Jones family clearly turned the P.T. Barnum [housing] project into a war zone," Benedict said. "Our efforts to get at that were less than successful. We were just happy to get the federal people interested and give them a whack. As a result, I've got 11 murders in Bridgeport this year. Ten years ago we had 60-something. We were the murder capital of the world."

Michigan has no state death penalty, and to date is the only such state in which federal prosecutors have secured a death sentence. Marvin Gabrion was sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of a woman just days before she was scheduled to testify against him at his rape trial. The woman was murdered on federal property - the Manistee National Forest.

But Massachusetts could soon join the ranks of Michigan. Gary Lee Sampson stabbed to death two men who had offered him rides when he was hitchhiking and strangled a third during a weekend-long crime spree in the summer of 2001. His federal death penalty hearing is now underway in Boston. Despite allowing the case to proceed, U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf expressed concerns about the number of innocent people who have been sentenced to death. He also noted that juries in federal capital cases are routinely rejecting death sentences.

"The day may come when a court properly can, and should, declare the ultimate sanction to be unconstitutional in all cases," Wolf wrote.

McNally, of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council, said juries have rejected death sentences for 22 out of 24 federal defendants in the past two years.

One case that epitomizes the jurisdictional tug-of-war played out over the last three years in Puerto Rico, where a federal judge refused to allow prosecutors to seek death sentences against two men accused of kidnapping, holding for ransom and killing a local grocery store owner. The island in 1929 abolished capital punishment and has a provision banning it in its constitution. .

In July 2000, Puerto Rico District Judge Salvatore Casellas ruled that federal death penalty laws could not be enforced in Puerto Rico because its citizens have no representation in Congress. "It shocks the conscience to impose the ultimate penalty, death, upon American citizens who are denied the right to participate directly or indirectly in the government that enacts and authorizes the use of such punishment," Casellas wrote.

Casellas was overruled on appeal, however, and the case was tried as a capital case. Jurors in July acquitted Joel Rivera Alejandro and Acosta Martinez on all charges, making it unnecessary to reach the issue of punishment.

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