Wednesday 2 February 2011

Death sentence tossed in slaying of former in-laws

A judge threw out the death sentence on Tuesday of a Kentucky inmate convicted of killing his former in-laws more than a decade ago after concluding that a juror gave inaccurate statements during pretrial questioning.
Oldham County Circuit Judge Karen Conrad also found that the same juror in the case of 39-year-old Miguel "Mickey" Soto failed to follow his oath and consider mitigating evidence in the case. Conrad ordered a new sentencing hearing for Soto.

Soto, a former Kentucky National Guard soldier, was sentenced to death in 2000 for killing Armott and Edna Porter on June 29, 1999.

Jurors also sentenced Soto to 50 years in prison for attempted murder in the wounding of his ex-wife, Armotta Porter, and firing a shot in the direction of his then-3-year-old daughter, Brianna Porter. Prosecutors said Soto used a .38 to kill Armott Porter and carried a .45 semiautomatic pistol during the attack.

Soto, in phone calls and letters with The Associated Press before the ruling, said he was lucky that the jurors in his case answered questions from attorneys after serving on the panel. That, Soto said, showed he didn't get a fair sentencing.
"I just want the world to know what kind of jurors and lawyers are involved in capital cases all over the country," Soto said in a December 2009 letter.

Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway's office, said the ruling is under review for a possible appeal.
"We are disappointed in the ruling," Martin said.
One of Soto's attorneys, David Barron, said the case underscores the importance of pretrial questioning of jurors, who must consider mitigating evidence in capital cases. In this case, the juror slipped through that system, Barron said.

"His answers were inconsistent with his true beliefs," Barron said.
Jurors in capital cases are screened to weed out potential panelists who could not impose a death sentence. The jurors then are sworn in with a promise to consider all the evidence at both the guilt phase and, if necessary a sentencing phase where capital punishment could be imposed.
Conrad's ruling focused on juror Timothy Walker of Bedford. During pretrial questioning, Walker told attorneys he could fairly weigh all the evidence in both the guilt and sentencing phases of the trial.
But, in a June 28, 2005 affidavit, Walker said he believed in the death penalty because taxpayers would have to pay to keep an inmate in prison for life.

"I believe in an eye for an eye when someone is found guilty of an intentional murder," Walker wrote in a June 28, 2005 affidavit. "I decided that Soto should get a death sentence as soon as I decided he was guilty."
During a hearing in April, Walker testified that there were situations where he would automatically impose a death sentence and, in Soto's case, didn't weigh any mitigating evidence the defense presented.
"Yes, I based my decision to impose the death penalty on the crime itself," Walker testified.

Conrad found that Walker's failure to disclose his feelings about the death penalty in pretrial questioning violated Soto's right to a fair sentencing hearing.

"If he had answered the questions accurately, he would have been stricken from the jury pool as a biased juror, and therefore was never eligible to serve as a juror on the capital case," Conrad wrote.
Soto's attorneys took issue with other jurors comments, but Conrad found that the jurors had a rational explanation for their answers to pretrial questions.
In affidavits filed in Soto's case, jurors expressed no reservations about handing down a death sentence, including several who said their minds were made up before the sentencing phase of the trial.
"There is no mitigating evidence that could have influenced me to vote for less than a sentence of death," juror Karl Palzer of Crestwood wrote in an affidavit signed June 27, 2005.
Jury foreman Stephen Young, in a Feb. 4, 2006 affidavit, said he voted for a death sentence because he believed Soto to be a "worthless (expletive)."
Juror Peggy Wathen of Pewee Valley said in an affidavit that anyone who intentionally kills two people should automatically receive a death sentence. Wathen told a law clerk on June 11, 2005 that no mitigating evidence from the defense was going to change her mind.
"Mrs. Wathen was very concerned with the idea that Mr. Soto might get released or get off death row," Mills wrote. "Mrs. Wathen expressed concern that Mr. Soto had not yet been executed and that she had not been kept informed of what was going on in his case."


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