Elderly woman seeks new trial in Illinois murder plot

Friday, December 10, 2004

A Cape Girardeau County jury handed down a minimum punishment, then asked for a suspended sentence.

By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A 68-year-old great-grandmother serving a prison term for conspiracy to commit murder should get a new trial because the jury that convicted her recommended she not be punished, the woman's attorney told the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday.

An attorney for the state countered the woman really is seeking an opportunity for jury nullification, which is when a jury acquits a sympathetic defendant despite overwhelming evidence of guilt.

A Cape Girardeau County jury in April 2003 found Helen Severs of Ullin, Ill., guilty of the felony charge for her role in a plot to kill her granddaughter's husband.

In returning its verdict, the jury recommended the minimum punishment of five years in prison but asked that Severs receive a suspended imposition of sentence. Under a suspended sentence, if the defendant successfully completes probation no conviction goes on her record.

Because the jury had no discretion to order a suspended sentence, circuit court Judge John Heisserer treated that portion of the jury's recommendation as a non-binding request for leniency. At the subsequent sentencing hearing, Heisserer said he considered granting Severs probation but concluded that would "send a horrible message to the public" that someone can plot to murder another and not be punished.

Before the Supreme Court, public defender Nancy McKerrow said Heisserer should have declined to accept the faulty sentence recommendation and instructed the jury to resume deliberations. Had the jury known its only choices were to convict and send Severs to prison or to acquit, McKerrow said the jury may well have chosen the latter option.

That argument was met with skepticism by some members of the court.

"Are you saying we should reverse because the jury didn't get a chance to nullify?" Judge Laura Denvir Stith asked.

No prejudice

McKerrow acknowledged nullification isn't allowed but noted juries sometimes do it anyway.

"We don't know how it would have turned out if the jury had the information needed to reach a conclusion," McKerrow said.

Assistant attorney general Evan Buchheim said the trial judge acted properly in accepting the jury's decision while disregarding its directive for a suspended sentence.

"In the end, she suffered no prejudice because they recommended the minimum," Buchheim said.

Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. said that since the jury had already found Severs guilty, they couldn't rescind that verdict.

"The only opportunity the jury had, had the case gone back to the jury, was to impose a punishment of five to 15 years," Limbaugh said.

Since jurors had already agreed on the lowest possible sentence, Limbaugh added that further discussion likely was unnecessary.

The Supreme Court will issue an opinion at a later date.

In August 2002, Severs gave her daughter, Linda Myers, $75 to buy a gun with which they intended to kill her granddaughter's husband, whom Severs believed had sexually molested her great-granddaughter. Prior to the murder plot, Severs reported the alleged abuse to Illinois officials, who investigated but found no evidence to support the claim.

Unbeknownst to Myers, the man from whom she bought the gun at a mall parking lot in Cape Girardeau was an undercover Missouri state trooper. Both women were arrested. Under questioning, Severs confessed to her role.

Severs is incarcerated at a women's prison in Vandalia.

The case is State of Missouri v. Helen Severs.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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