Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Deeper Look Shows Even More Cases of Unequal Justice

Deeper Look Shows Even More Cases of Unequal Justice

That's the title of John Seigenthaler's followup article in the Sunday edition of the Tennessean. LINK

A news story published here Dec. 20 under my byline reported critically on the striking differences in sentences that state judges and juries gave three Tennessee women convicted of killing their abusive husbands.

Further research makes it clear that the article failed to deal in adequate depth with the question of whether penalties handed down in such cases by Tennessee courts reflect what Judge Richard S. Arnold of the U.S. Court of Appeals called "the reality and perception of equal justice."

A review of the disparate levels of punishment the courts dispensed in these and six similar cases over the last quarter-century makes the point:

• Two of the nine cases resulted in the killers being granted full probation — one after a new trial and the other after 67 days in a mental health facility.

• One of the cases resulted in a life sentence being commuted to 18 months and probation.

• Another resulted in a prison term of 15 years and early parole.

• Four of the cases resulted in life sentences. Two of these women were freed on parole; the others are entitled to parole hearings.

• Only one woman was sentenced to death. Gaile Owens' court appeals were exhausted last month, and the Tennessee Supreme Court soon will set the date for her death.

In all nine cases, the murders were brutal. In four of them, wives arranged for hit men to kill their husbands. In all but one of the cases, defense lawyers, either during trial or on appeal, presented evidence that the wives had endured physical or emotional abuse from their spouses. In at least half the cases, defense lawyers sought to prove that the killers suffered from battered woman syndrome — a condition the courts have defined as "a female who is the victim of consistent, severe domestic violence."

David Raybin, a criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor — who convicted the killer in one of the nine cases and successfully defended the killer in another — believes that the pattern of inconsistent sentencing may have resulted from the failure of some defense lawyers to effectively present battered woman syndrome testimony. Court records seem to document that.

Seigenthaler's original article, "The uneven hand of justice in TN murders," was noted here last month.

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