Friday, July 28, 2006

Court Upholds Death Sentence For Multi-State Crime Spree

US v. Fulks: Fullks and his codefendant Basham (trials and appeals were severed) met while incarcerated in a jail in Kentucky awaiting sentencing on various charges. They escaped and embarked on a multi-state crime spree that took them from Indiana to West Virginia to the Carolinas (and back) and left one man tied to a tree and two women dead in the process. They were apprehended in Indiana and brought to South Carolina to face federal charges, including carjacking resulting in death and kidnapping resulting in death for the second murder victim (who was taken from South Carolina to North Carolina and killed).

The Government sought the death penalty. Fulks pleaded guilty to the carjacking and kidnapping (as well as others) charges and proceeded to trial on the issue of whether he should be sentenced to death. After more than a month of trial proceedings, the jury returned a verdict recommending that Fulks be put to death. The district court, after denying a motion for new trial, sentenced Fulks to death on both the kidnapping and carjacking counts and 744 months on the other charges (to be served consecutively to the death sentences, for good measure).* Fulks appealed his death sentence.

In a lengthy opinion (that can't really be adequately summarized in a blog post), the Fourth Circuit affirmed Fulks's sentence. In doing so, the court rejected arguments that:

  • the district court erred by not excluding the testimony of two witnesses who were not on the Government's witness list prior to trial;
  • the district court erred by not striking from the jury three jurors who were unconsitutionally prone to impose the death penalty;
  • the district court erred in denying the motion for new trial based on revelations that one of the jurors failed to answer a question during voir dire that her husband had been murdered
  • the district court erred by not striking two other jurors whose personal experiences biased them against Fulks
  • the district court erred by not allowing Fulks to introduce evidence of three polygraph exams he took
  • the district court erred by allowing the victim's sister to read a 14-year old letter the victim wrote to her about leaving her abusive husband; and
  • that the Federal Death Penalty Act is unconstitutional because of its lax evidentiary standards.
Judge Williams concurred, disagreeing with the court on whether the district court properly allowed two witnesses to testify who were not on the Government's witness list. While he felt that the district court erred on that issue, the error was harmless.

* Fulks also pleaded guilty in relation to the other murder in the Southern District of West Virginia and received a life sentence.

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