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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2007

Defendants’ right to speak at capital murder trials limited

August 11, 2007

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— The Kansas Supreme Court said Friday that defendants in capital murder cases can give unsworn statements only after the jury recommends a sentence.

The court ruled 5-2 that defendants can testify during the guilt and sentencing phases. But they can't speak or issue statements - known as allocutions - right before the jury begins deliberating.

The case involved Kansas City, Kan., resident Darrell Stallings. He was sentenced to five consecutive life terms for a June 2002 killing spree in Wyandotte County. The sentence requires he serve 50 years before being eligible for parole, meaning he would not be eligible for 250 years.

At his trial, Stallings was allowed to address the jury before it began deliberating. State law limits allocutions in other murder trials to after a jury returns a verdict, but that's not spelled out in the capital murder statute.

Justice Lee R. Johnson wrote for the majority that allowing a defendant to make a statement before the jury deliberates does not give prosecutors the right to cross-examination. Stallings argued that his right to make a statement was a matter of due process and equal protection.

"There is scant support for finding the right of allocution in general to be a constitutional right and even less support for extending that right to addressing the death penalty jury, rather than the sentencing judge," Johnson wrote.

The court said while Stallings had a right to make a statement, the question is of timing and to whom.

In writing for the minority, Justice Eric Rosen said he and Justice Robert Davis disagreed with the definition of "court" as cited in the majority opinion. The two interpret that to include the jury, not just the judge, thus defendants should be afforded the right to speak to jurors at any time.

Rosen wrote that the ruling creates a "double standard" in that a sentencing judge may hear statements from defendants while a "sentencing jury" may not.

"The timing of allocution is crucial. If it is to be an authentic, meaningful factor in the sentencing procedure, it must occur before the nature of the sentence has hardened into a fixed immutability," he wrote. "Allocution in a capital sentencing scheme after the jury has returned its verdict on sentencing is a meaningless formality."

According to prosecutors, Stallings, 37, and co-defendant Errik Harris, 31, began their actions in 2002 as retaliation for the attempted robbery and beating of Stallings' mother two months earlier.

Two people were caught and convicted for those crimes, but Stallings thought Anthony and Trina Jennings played a role, too. Trina Jennings, 26, who was eight months pregnant, was killed; her 29-year-old brother, Anthony, was wounded.

Prosecutors said none of the victims was involved in the attack on Stallings' mother. Also killed were Samantha Sigler, 24; Destiny Wiles, 23; Tameika Jackson, 24; and Melvin Montague, 34, all of whom prosecutors said died because they were witnesses to Trina Jennings' killing.

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