Outcomes in Other Area Death Penalty Cases
Below is a collection of some area cases in which prosecutors filed notice to seek the death penalty, although in some cases a lesser plea was accepted. Each case is listed by defendant and involves attorneys now involved in the Jesse Mathews case.
• Twanna Blair -- Bradley County prosecutors sought the death penalty against Blair for the execution-style slayings of O.J. Blair, 18; Cayci Higgins, 19; and Dawn Rogers, 25, on Feb. 14, 1999. But they withdrew death penalty option before trial. A hung jury resulted in a mistrial in 2009. All charges were dismissed against Blair on appeal. Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss defended Blair.
• H.R. Hester -- A McMinn County jury found Hester guilty and sentenced him to death in March 2005 for the Dec. 14, 1999, death of Charles Haney, 77. Hester was trying to murder his ex-wife, Dora Mae Hester, and set fire to a mobile home in which Haney and Dora Mae lay bound and gagged. Davis defended Hester. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld his sentence in 2010. He is on death row in Nashville.
• Billy Joe Darnell -- Pleaded guilty in August 2000 for the killing of Randall Howe on Feb. 18, 1998. District Attorney Bill Cox and former prosecutor now-Judge Barry Steelman prosecuted the case against Darnell. He received a sentence of life without parole.
• Randall Dell Turner -- Pleaded guilty in March 2001 to the Oct. 6, 1998, murder of Geraldine Melton and kidnapping her daughter Carlene Melton. Steelman prosecuted the case against Turner, who received life without parole.
• Marlon Duane Kiser -- Kiser was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 for ambushing and killing Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Donald Bond on Sept. 6, 2001. Kiser is on death row, but in 2010 he was granted a review of evidence in his case for appeal. Cox and Steelman prosecuted the case against Kiser.
• Timothy McDaniel -- Pleaded guilty in August 2005 for the 2002 stabbing death of Chattanooga real estate agent Mary Lou Wojcik. Cox and Steelman prosecuted the case against McDaniel, then-Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston assisted in the case and prosecuted McDaniel's co-defendants on robbery charges. McDaniel received life without parole.
• Isaac Eugene Jones -- In August 2005, a jury found Jones guilty of second-degree murder in the May 6, 2002, killing of Chattanooga Police Officer Julie Jacks. Cox and Steelman prosecuted the case. Judge Doug Meyer sentenced Jones to the maximum punishment of 25 years in state prison.
• Dr. Ariel Sanjines -- Sanjines pleaded guilty in February 1995 to the attempted murder of his wife, Gina Sanjines, and her boyfriend Virgil Schrag on March 6, 1994. Cox prosecuted the case against Sanjines, who received life plus 25 years.
• Paul Ware -- A jury found Ware guilty for the October 1994 murder of a 4-year-old girl. He was sentenced to life without parole in September 1996. Davis and Steelman prosecuted the case.
• Leroy Hall Jr. -- Convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 for murder and aggravated arson in the death of ex-girlfriend Traci Crozier. Cox prosecuted the case against Hall, who is on death row.
• Joseph Paul Franklin -- A professed serial killer who was convicted of a string of hate-related murders across the country pleaded guilty to the 1978 shooting death of William Bryant Tatum in 1998. Cox prosecuted the case. Franklin was given a life sentence.
• James Cannon -- Pleaded guilty in October 1997 and was sentenced to life without parole for the October 1995 shooting death of Tonya Morris. Cox prosecuted the case.
• Tony Pope -- Pleaded guilty in June 2006 to the May 3, 2005, killings of his wife, Andrea Pope, their infant son, Christian, and his stepdaughter Brianna Justice Moody. Cox prosecuted the case. Pope received life without parole.
• Peter Wayne Billington -- Pleaded guilty in May 2004 for the May 11, 2002, shooting deaths of his mother Gerardina, father Nigel and sister Amanda. Cox and Steelman prosecuted the case against Davis and John Cavett. Hoss worked with Davis as a researcher on the case. Billington received life without parole.
• Jennifer Womac -- Womac's case has not gone to trial. She faces the death penalty for her alleged involvement in a contract killing with James "Louie" Landers of her father, Grady Nichols Jr. on Sept. 19, 2009, in Meigs County. Hoss was recently appointed lead counsel in Womac's defense.
Source: Times Free Press archives
PLAYERS IN STORY
• Bill Cox
Hamilton County District Attorney General
Prosecuted at least 11 death penalty cases.
• Neal Pinkston
Hamilton County Executive Assistant District Attorney General
Prosecuted or assisted in at least two death penalty cases.
• Barry Steelman
Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge
Prosecuted at least eight death penalty cases as an assistant district attorney. This is his first death penalty case as a judge.
• Lee Davis
Court-appointed criminal defense attorney, former assistant district attorney
Prosecuted or defended at least six death penalty cases.
• Bryan Hoss
Court-appointed criminal defense attorney
Worked as defense attorney or investigator in at least three death penalty cases.
A Colorado fugitive charged with killing a local police officer is surrounded by attorneys and a judge who have an estimated combined 75 years in law and involvement in at least 30 death penalty cases.
A look at those cases and state death penalty studies offers some insight into what may happen with Jesse Mathews, who police say killed Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin and whose trial date the judge may set in December. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
Individual outcomes varied in the related cases analyzed by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, but the cases show that defendants often plead guilty to their crimes in order to receive a sentence other than death.
Those pleas can be crucial at the early stages of a capital case, experts say, because often prosecutors seek the death penalty when the evidence for guilt weighs heavily in their favor.
Local defense attorney Hank Hill has no involvement in the Mathews case but has defended at least seven death penalty trials in his career, some against lawyers in the Mathews case.
“I don’t think there’s any question about whether or not there’s going to be a first-degree murder conviction,” Hill said. “So you’ve got to look at mitigation above all else, immediately.”
Criminal defense attorneys and a university expert in criminal and mental health law say work on death penalty cases is more extensive, time-consuming and demanding for both the prosecution and defense teams. The cases can take years to reach trial and, if the defendant is found guilty and sentenced to death, there is likely to be at least a decade of appeals.
A 2004 Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury study showed that prosecutors who sought the death penalty got a death sentence about one-third of the time.
The study looked at 148 death penalty trials from 1993 until 2003. In one of those trials charges against the defendant were dismissed. Among the rest of the defendants, 46 received the death penalty, 36 received life without parole, 33 life with parole. Defendants appealed all outcomes. The remaining cases had other results not explained in the study.
It took an average of 846 days to take a death penalty case from offense to trial, according to the study. Life without parole cases took 659 days while life with parole cases took 665 days.
On Tuesday, Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox and Executive Assistant District Attorney Neal Pinkston asked Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman to set a trial date for Mathews. Steelman said he would likely set the date by the next scheduled status hearing on Dec. 13.
Mathews was arrested moments after police say he killed Chapin during an April 2 botched robbery at the U.S. Money Shops on Brainerd Road.
Mathews’ mother, father, sister and sister’s boyfriend all pleaded guilty to federal charges that they helped him in February after he fled a halfway house in Colorado, where court documents state he committed three armed robberies. The family members face federal sentencing on Dec. 12.
Mathews’ court-appointed defense attorneys, Lee Davis and Bryan Hoss, agreed to speak with the Times Free Press about their experience in past death penalty cases and the process of these types of cases. They declined any comment related to Mathews’ case because it is pending.
Steelman, Cox and Pinkston declined to comment for the story.
The judge and attorneys have, on different occasions, worked together and against one another on local death penalty cases.
Filing Notice, Taking Cases
In Tennessee, criminal defense attorneys must meet special qualifications to serve as death penalty counsel. Prosecutors must look at certain criteria before deciding to seek the death penalty.
Lawyers often refer to the crimes that receive the death penalty as the “worst of the worst.” A typical homicide, if there can be such a thing, may not qualify.
Tennessee law classifies death-deserving cases as “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” and includes homicides committed during the commission of other felonies. Killing any of the following classes of people can bring the death penalty: a child, firefighter, district attorney or law enforcement officer.
Tennessee Supreme Court rules require defense attorneys in death penalty cases to have at least five years experience in criminal trials, complete specialized training and maintain the training every two years, and to have served in some form in previous capital cases, either as lead or co-counsel.
Prosecutors are not required to seek the death penalty, even in an “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel” case. No defense attorney is required to seek the qualifications to defend such cases. But attorneys on both sides see these types of cases as a duty to the law.
“These are complicated issues. They are never cases you look forward to,” Davis said. “I think it’s an ethical obligation if you’re an attorney with this training.”
Davis has worked on both sides of the court. As a prosecutor with the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office, he prosecuted the death penalty case against Paul Ware in 1996 with then-Executive Assistant District Attorney Barry Steelman. A jury found Ware guilty of murdering a 4-year-old girl and sentenced him to life without parole.
As the prosecutor, Davis said, his job was to work for a guilty verdict in the Ware case and it was the jury’s duty to decide his fate.
In 2004, as a defense attorney, Davis represented Peter Wayne Billington with co-counsel John Cavett, facing Cox and Steelman, who were district attorneys working for the prosecution at the time. To avoid a trial, Billington pleaded guilty to killing his mother, father and sister and received life without parole.
Though death penalty cases can be expensive both in the trial and appeals phases, costing much more than the typical homicide case, they’re not profitable for defense attorneys when compared to other types of cases, attorneys said, even though they’re paid more when appointed to death penalty cases.
“We lose money on the time we spend on these cases compared to what we would be paid on our private clients,” Davis said.
Appointed attorneys are paid $100 an hour for in-court time and $75 an hour for out-of-court work in death penalty cases as compared to $50 in-court and $40 out-of-court in other appointed cases.
A 2003 death penalty analysis by the Tennessee Supreme Court of cases showed three of the top 10 most expensive ongoing cases at the time came from Hamilton County. The Randall Turner case total cost at trial was $232,687.67, topping the list. Billy Joe Darnell’s case cost the state $77,684.16, while Tory Nocho’s case cost $52,575.40.
The comptroller study the following year compared death penalty cases with life without parole and life with parole cases that went to trial. The average cost of a death penalty trial was $46,791, life without parole $31,494 and life with parole $31,622, but these amounts did not include defense attorney costs or account for representation on appeals after the initial trial.
The same study showed the average death row inmate spends an average of 13 years on death row before being executed.
The last person executed in Tennessee was Cecil Johnson in 2009, who was convicted on three counts of first-degree murder in Davidson County, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction website. Donald Strouth is the longest-serving death row inmate in the state and has been there since 1978 for a conviction on a capital felony murder charge in Kingsport.
Costs reach beyond paying attorneys. The 2004 study showed that 70 percent of death penalty cases have sequestered juries — which means the court must pay to feed and house them throughout the duration of the trial — and 34 percent of defendants receive mental health evaluations.
Davis and Hoss have said in court they will request both a sequestered jury and a mental health evaluation of Mathews.
From the start of a case, defense attorneys begin working not only on preparation for the trial but also on what’s called the sentencing phase — essentially a separate trial that occurs once the defendant is found guilty.
The sentencing phase allows both teams of lawyers to argue to the jury why the defendant should or shouldn’t receive a death sentence.
During this phase, mountains of research, sometimes looking back three generations into family history, school, criminal, mental and physical health records, can be presented to give jurors a possible window into the convicted’s thinking. Both sides bring in expert witnesses, character witnesses and family members of the victim and the defendant to testify about influences on the defendant and the impact of the crime.
In Tennessee, only a jury can sentence someone to death.
Christopher Slobogin, a professor of criminal and mental health law at Vanderbilt University, said the sentencing phase of death penalty cases “often involves at least as much evidence, if not more evidence than the trial.”
Hill, the local criminal defense attorney who has taken at least seven death penalty cases to trial, said that almost as soon as they were assigned the cases, his team began planning and researching for the sentencing phase.
Under Tennessee law, death penalty defendants are entitled to two lawyers. How those lawyers work on the case depends on the team, said Hoss.
Hoss and Davis worked together on the 2009 trial of Twanna Blair in Bradley County, a case that stemmed from a Feb. 14, 1999, triple homicide in which prosecutors charged Blair and two co-defendants with the killing.
Blair’s case is the most recent area death penalty case not pending trial or under appeal.
Leading up to the trial, Hoss said both he and Davis focused much of their efforts on the guilt/innocence phase because there were “serious questions” about her being guilty of the crime. Prosecutors withdrew the death penalty option one month before the trial, and Blair was eventually found not guilty of all charges against her.
But in other cases, attorneys may spend more time researching a defendant’s past at the outset of the trial so they’re ready to fend off a death sentence if their client is found guilty, Hoss said.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...