Posted July 3, 2003 | comments Leave a comment

Justices to consider Bell’s petition on Friday

Jury found death row inmate guilty of shooting Winchester policeman

By Kevin Killen -- Daily Staff Writer

When U.S. Supreme Court justices consider whether to hear an appeals petition from death row inmate Edward N. Bell on Friday, odds are the case will not move to the nation’s highest courtroom.

“It usually depends if the case has constitutional merit and may be a landmark decision,” said Abe Bonowitz of Florida-based Citizens United For Alternatives To The Death Penalty. Bonowitz estimated that the Supreme Court hears about 100 death penalty cases each year.

Bonowitz said that Virginia had a landmark case last year when the Supreme Court ruled in Atkins V. Virginia that the execution of mentally retarded inmates is a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Bell, a 38-year-old Jamaican, was sentenced to die in May 2001 after being found guilty four months earlier for the October 1999 shooting death of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook.

An official with the Supreme Court’s public information office said that at least four of the nine justices must agree to hear the petition for it to go further.

If the justices refuse to review the petition, it would end Bell’s direct appeal process, allowing him to file another appeal, called a state habeas corpus review, said Randy Davis, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry Kilgore.

The state should have an answer from the conference on Monday, and doesn’t expect any news before that, he said.

Meanwhile, Bell is on death row at the Sussex State Prison in Waverly.

He is one of 26 inmates on Virginia’s death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Virginia has one of the smallest death row populations in the country, said Brenda Bowser, the center’s communications director. California’s death row is the largest in the nation with 613 inmates, she said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report filed in October, 71 executions were performed last year, with Texas leading all states with 33. Of the 71, four were in Virginia, the report says.

According to Bonowitz, few death row inmates are ever exonerated. Nationwide, only 102 inmates have been freed since 1973, including four last year, he said. “It’s very difficult to get this done, but it does happen,” Bonowitz said.

If the justices decide to review Bell’s petition, a date will be set to hear oral arguments, Davis said. If the petition is denied, the writ of habeas corpus must be filed with the court within 60 days, he said. At that time, the defense can offer new evidence in the case, he said.

On Dec. 10, Kilgore’s office said there is no “compelling reason” for the Supreme Court to review Bell’s case.

Bell’s defense team — Ira Sacks of New York, Mark B. Williams of Warrenton and Marie Donnelly of Charlottesville — filed an appeal claiming that their client’s Sixth, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights were violated when the death penalty was affirmed based on “future dangerousness.”

* Contact Kevin Killen at kkillen@nvdaily.com

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