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March 24, 2012

Vacated death sentence cuts number of women on federal death row in half

As reported in this AP piece, a ruling by a federal district judge earlier this week "removed one of the two women on federal death row Friday, saying lawyers for the Iowa woman convicted in the 1993 execution-style murders of five people failed to present evidence about her troubled mental state that could have spared her from capital punishment."  Here are the basic details from a mega-ruling:

In a 448-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett threw out Angela Johnson's death sentence, saying her defense lawyers were "alarmingly dysfunctional" during the 2005 trial that made her the first woman to be sentenced to death in the federal system since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976....

Bennett's ruling doesn't throw out her convictions — he said evidence of her guilt was overwhelming. Johnson and boyfriend Dustin Honken committed the murders to thwart a federal investigation that threatened to end Honken's reign as one of the Midwest's largest methamphetamine kingpins, and buried the bodies to cover them up.

After separate trials, jurors sentenced Honken to death for the two children's murders while Johnson was sentenced to death on four counts.... The bodies of the victims — drug dealers-turned-government witnesses Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson; Nicholson's girlfriend, Lori Duncan; and Duncan's daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6 — were found in shallow graves near Mason City in 2000. They were discovered after Johnson, serving time on drug charges, sketched out a locator map to a jailhouse informant....

Bennett said that he understands his ruling will upset victims' families, but Johnson's defense was so riddled with missteps that her rights were violated. "I believe that I have done my duty, in light of what is required by the Constitution — the foundational document of our Nation's enduring freedoms, including the right not to be put to death when trial counsel's performance was so grossly constitutionally inadequate," he wrote.

During the penalty phase of Johnson's trial, Bennett said defense lawyers failed to present expert testimony about her mental health at the time of the murders that could have helped explain her involvement to jurors.  He said they should have presented evidence about the impact of serious brain impairments, personality disorders and her prior methamphetamine use.

Bennett said defense lawyers also failed to present evidence that could have undercut the prosecution's claim that she participated in DeGeus' killing out of revenge, because of their prior relationship's abusive nature.  He said they should have had experts argue she was suffering from battered woman's syndrome and wouldn't have wanted him dead....

Iowa does not have the death penalty, and Bennett said few lawyers in the state had expertise in capital punishment.  He said he tried to assemble "dream team" of lawyers for Johnson — including Alfred Willett, of Cedar Rapids; Patrick Berrigan of Kansas City, Mo.; and Dean Stowers of Des Moines — but they performed poorly. Willett and Berrigan didn't return messages Friday. Stowers agreed the defense team was dysfunctional. "I'm happy she's going to get a new shot at things because she deserves it," he said.

Bennett, appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, has acknowledged his personal opposition to the death penalty.  In a 2006 speech about the two capital murder cases, he said he set aside his personal beliefs in the interest of fairness.  But he added he had "grave concerns" the death penalty could be applied unfairly.

The full 448-page opinion, which concludes by noting that the defendant prevailed "on only four of the sixty-four grounds that she asserted," can be accessed via this link.

March 24, 2012 at 01:15 PM | Permalink


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If you have to write 450 pages, the defense counsel probably wasn't incompetent. This woman killed little kids. That there even was a chance for life here is ridiculous. There should be a mandatory DP for a case like this.

Clinton judge. That's all you need to know.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 24, 2012 3:00:44 PM

I agree federalist. I honestly don't think he would have written 450 pages if a dude was appealing. I'm supposed to believe that it's some random coincidence that the guy's counsel was perfectly able and yet the woman's was not. . Sad to say but it's rulings like this that give credence to the claim that defense attorney will fall on their sword to spare someone's life. Frankly, all thee defense lawyers should be disbarred.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 24, 2012 4:29:57 PM

According to Wikipedia, Judge Bennett served as general counsel with the Iowa Civil Liberties Union from 1975 to 1989.


There are nine Republican appointees on the Eighth Circuit as opposed to just two Democratic appointees.


I say Judge Bennett gets overturned.

Posted by: alpino | Mar 24, 2012 11:12:01 PM

I know it's a novel l idea -- but maybe you ought to read the opinion before you shoot your mouths off and analyze the opinion on the merits. He addressed each of the 64 issues that were raised. There were 58 witnessed over 18 days of 2255 trial testimony and thousands of pages of exhibits but you all shoot your mouth off without reading it...I say your idiots.

Posted by: Steven J | Mar 25, 2012 3:19:43 PM

@setevn J

And maybe you ought not to miss the forest for the trees.

There are more than 3000 death row inmates in the USA. Of these two are women.

Now if this was Fortune 500 business with a male female ratio of 1000:1 and one of those women got fired every feminist in the country would be screaming blood murder. Only a willfully blind fool fails to recognize disparate impact when they see it.

Sexual discrimination should be fought wherever it is found, even on death row.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 25, 2012 4:55:13 PM

I read most and skimmed part of this opinion. This judge did not go out of his way to rule in Johnson's favor. There were numerous, maybe 20 some , findings of ineffective assistance where the judge did not find prejudice. Prejudice is strictly a judgment call and he certainly could have found more. BTW Daniel your stats ate way off. Three were two woman of 58 on Fed death row. There are a lot more than 2 woman on death row in the states. How about checking your facts before spouting off.

Posted by: Steve Prof | Mar 25, 2012 5:32:52 PM

"here were 58 witnessed over 18 days of 2255 trial testimony and thousands of pages of exhibits but you all shoot your mouth off without reading it...I say your idiots."

"your idiots" kinda says it all, huh?

Posted by: federalist | Mar 26, 2012 6:54:44 AM

@Steve Prof
I believe he meant there are 2 women on the Federal death row, which is true. Now there's one, meaning women make up roughly 2% of the federal death row in spite of committing 10-15% of capital crimes. State death rows are similarly under representative of female murderers, just 1.8%. I can see no other reason for this other than a clear bias in favor of women.

Posted by: MikeinCT | Mar 26, 2012 11:18:53 AM

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