Appeals court to review Miss. death row inmate’s re-sentencing

Published 3:37 pm Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A federal appeals court will decide whether a Mississippi death row inmate’s rights were violated when, at his re-sentencing, he was not allowed to rebut prosecutors’ claim that he killed a teenager while committing rape.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an order issued Monday, said death row inmate Gerald James Holland raised a possible constitutional question on what evidence a defendant can present when facing a new sentencing hearing for a capital crime.

Mississippi prosecutors had argued to the 5th Circuit that, under state law, once guilt is established in a separate trial those, issues cannot be re-debated during the sentencing phase.

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In Mississippi, capital murder cases require two jury trials — one on guilt or innocence, and a second to determine a life sentence or death. Death penalty appeals go directly to the state Supreme Court.

Also, capital murder is defined in Mississippi as murder committed with another felony — in Holland’s case, rape.

Holland argued to the 5th Circuit that this was an re-sentencing with a new jury that did not deal with issues of guilt and innocence.

Holland said prosecutors put on evidence that he raped and killed 15-year-old Krystal King in the 1980s, but that he was not allowed to put on evidence to the contrary.

Prosecutors said Holland should not be allowed to re-litigate the issue of his guilt at his re-sentencing.

The 5th Circuit said it was that dual function that raises a constitutional question in Holland’s case.

“The lack of rebuttal evidence makes it much more likely that a jury would find that the state met its burden with respect to that aggravating circumstance. We believe reasonable jurists would find the resolution of this argument debatable,” the 5th Circuit said.

Holland was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1987 in the slaying of King. Prosecutors said King was raped, beaten and stabbed. The cause of death was asphyxiation caused by choking, according to the court record.

The Mississippi Supreme Court in 1991 upheld Holland’s conviction but threw out the death sentence.

Holland was re-sentenced to death in 1993 by a Harrison County jury. The Mississippi high court upheld the second death sentence in 1997. The Mississippi court rejected Holland’s claim that he should be allowed to counter the rape evidence, called an aggravating circumstance considered by the jury in imposing punishment.

U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. sided with the state court in 2006. Holland appealed to the 5th Circuit.

Monday’s ruling was issued by a panel of three 5th Circuit judges — Harold R. DeMoss Jr., Carl E. Stewart and Edward Charles Prado.