Supreme Court again considers death penalty

Thursday, September 4, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Just two months after reversing a death sentence in a similar case, the Missouri Supreme Court was asked Wednesday to consider whether there are some circumstance in which a judge -- and not a jury -- can impose a death sentence on a convicted murder.

The attorney representing convicted triple-murderer Deandra Buchanan, of Columbia, argued before the state's highest court his client should be re-sentenced to life imprisonment as a result of the court's June ruling in the case of Joseph Whitfield.

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed on a 4-3 vote Whitfield's death sentence based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that juries, not judges, must make the life-or-death decisions in most cases. Doing otherwise would be unconstitutional, the nation's highest court ruled in an Arizona case.

"Two-and-a-half months ago this court made this case simple and much more straight forward, I hope," said Gary Brotherton, Buchanan's attorney. "(Buchanan's) case was sent to the jury, but the jury did not decide."

Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton sentenced Buchanan of Columbia to death after a Henry County jury deadlocked during the penalty phase of the case.

The same jury convicted Buchanan on three counts of first-degree murder.

in the deaths of his aunt, his stepfather and his girlfriend.

He also shot an acquaintance who offered him a ride from the crime scene on Nov. 7, 2000, unaware the murders had taken place.

The state Supreme Court's decision in the Whitfield case was decided by four judges appointed by Democratic governors and opposed by three judges appointed by Republican governors.

"Roughly, those numbers are in my favor," Brotherton told the court Wednesday.

Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr., who wrote a dissent in the Whitfield case, acknowledged the court had recently leaned toward reversing or overturning death penalty cases.

Last week, the state Supreme Court, in another 4-3 decision, declared it unconstitutional to apply death sentences to people younger than 18 at the time of their crimes, reversing current state law.

Jack Morris, an assistant attorney general, said Buchanan's death sentence was not issued arbitrarily by the judge and that the evidence in the case supported the facts.

Morris also said the jury's decision meant there was at least one statutory aggravating circumstance -- a requirement under the law in reaching a death verdict -- that would give the judge authority to sentence Buchanan.

Judge Duane Benton, meanwhile, asked Morris whether the attorney general's office would appeal the Missouri court's decision in the Whitfield case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Morris said no decision had been made.

Whitfield, the oldest person on Missouri's death row at age 63, was sentenced in 1994 by a St. Louis County judge after he was convicted by a jury in the 1988 death of Ronald Chester, a paraplegic shot twice in the back of his head as he sat in his car.

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