St. Louis case could test new rules on death penalty

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- A St. Louis County murder case could test new rules that empower judges to step in for a jury when it is deadlocked on the death sentence.

For now, it's unclear whether a judge in Missouri can impose the death sentence if a jury cannot decide on the punishment.

Prosecutors have requested a death sentence for Scott McLaughlin, convicted this month of murdering his ex-girlfriend in Earth City.

If St. Louis County Circuit Judge Steven H. Goldman opts for the death penalty, attorneys for McLaughlin said they would raise constitutional issues challenging the new rules.

On Oct. 2, jurors in the McLaughlin case were sent home after failing to agree on one of two options -- execution or life in prison without parole. Four days earlier, they had convicted McLaughlin, 33, of Wright City, of first-degree murder, rape and armed criminal action.

Police said McLaughlin had stalked the victim, Beverly Guenther, 45, of Moscow Mills. He admitted he attacked her with a knife in an unlit parking lot in Earth City after she got off work. Forensic evidence showed the defendant had sex with the corpse before he hid her body in St. Louis.

No judge in Missouri has imposed a death sentence without a jury recommendation since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2002. In Ring vs. Arizona, the high court said jurors had to decide whether there were sufficient aggravating circumstances to support execution. Arizona law had left that call to a judge, in what the Supreme Court said was a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

In a split decision a year later, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the death sentence of Joseph Whitfield, then 63, who was twice convicted of murdering a paraplegic in St. Louis in 1988. The court said a judge should not have sentenced Whitfield to death in the second trial in 1994 after the jury had deadlocked.

Whitfield got life in prison as a result of the ruling.

Subsequent cases where a jury could not agree on life or death, and a judge imposed a death sentence, were also found by a divided Missouri Supreme Court to be a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

A 12-member panel of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, called the Supreme Court's Committee on Procedures in Criminal Cases, issued new instructions March 1 on the procedures in death penalty cases. They provide forms that juries are to fill out for either the death penalty or life in prison or a deadlock, said Deborah Daniels, counsel for the committee.

While the rules drawn up by the committee wer by the state supreme court, Daniels added, they are subject to a legal challenge.

Before reaching a deadlock, the McLaughlin jury did find statutory aggravating circumstances in the murder, and determined the factors against McLaughlin outweighed those in his favor.

Goldman said those findings meet the standards of the jury as fact-finder required in both the Arizona and Whitfield cases. The judge said he is confident he can proceed with the life-or-death decision at the sentencing hearing Nov. 3.

Karen Kraft, head of Missouri Public Defender's Capital Litigation Division, said she is bothered by the fact that the jury instructions do not match Missouri law on the death penalty. While the high court committee changed the instructions, the Legislature never amended the old law.

She also said the mitigating factors in McLaughlin's favor are not spelled out in the jury verdicts, "so he doesn't really know what the facts are."

Both issues will be raised on appeal, if Goldman decides that McLaughlin should be executed, Kraft said.


Information from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, www.stltoday.com

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