Death sentence lifted for man who killed grandmother

Sunday, September 3, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- A St. Louis man who represented himself at a murder trial no longer faces the death penalty for the 1995 beating death of his grandmother.

Charles W. Armentrout III has agreed to drop all appeals of his conviction in return for a recent order by a St. Louis circuit judge reducing his sentence to life in prison.

Armentrout had faced execution for killing his 81-year-old grandmother, Inez Notter, with a souvenir baseball bat on March 18, 1995, because she refused to give him money for drugs. Her body was found stuffed in a trunk in her St. Louis home, where Armentrout had lived for about six months.

Despite repeated warnings from two judges, Armentrout insisted upon representing himself in both his 1998 trial and subsequent penalty hearing before Circuit Judge David C. Mason.

With two public defenders provided by the court as "stand-by counsel," Armentrout told the jury he had "been a bad person all my life" and admitted that he planned to rob his grandmother but that another man killed her.

Armentrout was convicted and sentenced to death, and the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence in December 1999.

One year later, lawyers for Armentrout filed another appeal alleging that he had been "denied effective assistance at counsel, due process, equal protection, a fair trial, a fair penalty phase, and was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment."

Armentrout was back in court last month as Mason signed the order reducing his sentence to life without parole. Nels C. Moss, acting as a special assistant to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, told Mason that Joyce had agreed to the reduction in sentence in return for Armentrout's promise to permanently drop all appeals.

Moss, a former assistant circuit attorney now in private practice, was one of the prosecutors at Armentrout's trial. He helped Joyce on the appeal.

Moss said he was concerned that the federal courts, which have narrowed death penalty applications in recent years, might order a new trial on grounds that no defendant should be allowed to represent himself in a capital case. Death row inmates almost invariably file in federal court after exhausting state appeals.

"I think judges should tell him, 'You made your choice. You can't complain now,"' Moss said. "But do we want to risk trying this whole thing over again, 11 years after the fact and with witnesses scattered? The answer is no. He's still in prison for life."

Armentrout's 2001 appeal alleged that the two public defenders assigned to help him "failed to investigate his background, which contains substantial mitigating evidence and evidence of diminished capacity."

Armentrout called no witnesses during the trial and did not testify. He subpoenaed his mother for the penalty hearing, but on the witness stand she characterized him as her "former son."

On March 23, 1998, when Mason sentenced him to death, Armentrout argued with the judge and presented a list of 89 complaints about his trial. "I've gotten the shaft from the right, the left and the middle," it said.

Christopher E. McGraugh, a lawyer for Armentrout, said the theory of the appeal "is a little more complicated" than a man choosing to defend himself, and losing. He said Armentrout wanted the St. Louis Circuit Court to pay for specialists to help develop his defense, but Mason told him he could get that from the public defenders.

"So there was a conflict of his rights that put him in something of a Hobson's choice -- if you want to represent yourself, you can't have the money for experts," McGraugh said. "He has the constitutional right to both."

McGraugh said the appeal was strengthened by a federal ruling two years ago affirming the right of death penalty defendants to expert assistance. He said the order reducing Armentrout's sentence was "a good outcome."

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