In Baton Rouge triple homicide case, lawyers say death penalty challenges prejudicial jurors | Courts

At every capital murder trial in Louisiana, potential jurors are extensively questioned about their views on the death penalty before evidence is presented in the guilt phase of the trial.

Michael Lee Wade, a Baton Rouge man against whom prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty in the fatal 2019 shooting of his 72-year-old ex-girlfriend, boyfriend and grandmother, wants that to change.

His lawyers say that “calling a jury dead” before any evidence is even heard leads jurors to believe that “guilt is assured and all that really matters is the assessment of the sentence”.

The lawyers propose that State District Judge Tiffany Foxworth-Roberts reject the state’s request for the death penalty.

Alternatively, the lawyers suggest that a jury be selected for the guilt phase of his trial without any mention of the death penalty. If, and only if, the jury convicts Wade of first degree murder, then the jurors would be subjected to another round of questioning in the penalty phase to ensure that they have not decided that the death penalty is the only appropriate one. punishment in the case.

Foxworth-Roberts has scheduled a hearing for April 14.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said Thursday his office would “strongly oppose” what he called a motion without merit.

“The current procedure has never been unconstitutional,” Moore said. “This proposal cannot work because a juror must be a qualified juror for death from the outset before the trial and/or sanction phase.

“The same jury is convened for both the guilt and sentencing phases and all must be jurors qualified to die, able to consider the arguments on both sides and contemplate life or death. The procedure proposed in this motion just doesn’t work,” he added. .

Wade, 50, is accused of killing Crista Mae Sudduth, 35; her boyfriend, Ivy Frank, 32; and her grandmother, Ruby White, at the home in White’s Palmer Lane, off South Harrell’s Ferry Road, on June 26, 2019.

Authorities called the killings a “crime of rage”. Each victim was shot multiple times.

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In capital murder cases, prospective jurors may be constitutionally barred from service if they could never impose the death penalty, regardless of the facts or circumstances of the case. A potential juror must also be excluded if they cannot contemplate a life sentence or if they do not give the evidence of attenuation appropriate weight.

Wade’s attorneys, Kyla Blanchard-Romanach and Michael Fiser, argue in their death penalty petition that characterizing a jury as dead “creates a jury biased in favor of both conviction and death.”

“To continue to uphold this process of juror-to-death qualification in order to ensure fairness and impartiality, when the opposite is effectively achieved, is to maintain the perverse notion that the means justify the ends,” the lawyers argue. .

Blanchard-Romanach and Fiser note that the Capital Jury Project has studied the decision-making of actual jurors in the capital, including those in Louisiana, since 1995. The group’s study showed that the effect of the qualification procedure of death “is to eliminate the presumption of innocence and dilutes the prosecution’s burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” the lawyers say.

Prospective jurors are told that a defendant of capital murder is presumed innocent “at the same time they are asked to imagine that they have just convicted him of first-degree murder,” explain Wade’s attorneys.

“Studies of real jurors show that “once jurors imagine themselves in the sanction phase of the trial, they may come to assume that (the sanction phase) will occur and begin to organize subsequent information d ‘in a manner consistent with this assumption,'” the lawyers add.

Nearly 40% of Louisiana jurors studied by the Capital Jury Project admitted to having a preference for death at the end of the guilt phase, even though the law requires jurors to keep an open mind about punishment until the case to go to the jury at the conclusion of the penalty phase, Wade’s attorneys point out.

“These jurors prejudge the sanction decision during the guilt phase, long before they’ve even had a chance to discuss it with one of their fellow jurors or hear any of the mitigating evidence in the case. ‘capital defendant’, they declare.

Crista Sudduth was living at her grandmother’s house with her 14- and 12-year-old boys, who were inside the residence when the shooting began but fled shortly after midnight and survived the attack by hiding in a shed until the police arrived. The older boy called 911 and passed along identifying information about his mother’s ex-boyfriend and his vehicle. The 14-year-old also led his younger brother to safety.

Wade was arrested after a short chase from the Palmer Lane home to his home about 3 miles away in the Shenandoah neighborhood. He drove there when deputies noticed a handgun in his front passenger seat, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office said.

Wade, who had no history of violence, declined to be questioned shortly after his arrest because he claimed to have been intoxicated, authorities said.

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