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Posted July 6, 2006 | Leave a comment
Bell back in court, possibly for final time
Convicted murderer’s new legal team trying to stop his execution
By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer
HARRISONBURG — What could be convicted murderer Edward N. Bell’s last trip to court was marked with gut-wrenching testimony and tears on both sides Wednesday.
Bell was convicted in 2001 of the 1999 slaying of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook and sentenced to die. He has twice taken his case to the Virginia Supreme Court unsuccessfully.
He was set to die in January 2005, but U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones stepped in and stayed the execution until the federal courts could review the case.
The bulk of that review was completed in February, when Jones threw out all but one of Bell’s claims. Jones said he wanted to see more evidence that Bell’s lawyers, Jud Fischel and Mark Williams, didn’t do a good enough job in the sentencing phase of his trial.
The team only presented two witnesses, and didn’t submit any evidence as to the impact Bell’s execution might have on his children, or that Bell might have some redeeming qualities.
His new lawyers set out on Wednesday to prove that not only was such evidence out there, but it was easy to obtain.
That team opened its case with an expert from the trial of teenage D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo.
Craig S. Cooley, Malvo’s Virginia defense attorney and a teacher at the University of Richmond’s law school, testified about what a lawyer in a capital case is expected to do during sentencing.
“What mitigation is about is showing that this person has redeemable qualities, or an explanation of how the person got to this point,” Cooley said. “Jurors want an explanation.”
And “at the end of the day, it’s the attorney’s responsibility,” he said.
Some of the more potent testimony of the day came from Dr. William Stejskal, the University of Virginia psychologist who examined Bell for the defense prior to the 2001 trial.
The office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell argued that a report from Stejskal that found Bell had sandbagged a battery of tests, and advised his lawyers not to put Stejskal on the stand, shows that the team made a reasonable mitigation effort.
Bell’s first lawyers didn’t seem inclined to do mitigation, Stejskal said.
Just a few weeks before the trial began, Stejskal testified, Williams told him that little if any other work had been done in the mitigation department.
In fact, Stejskal said his report strayed into the field of legal advice — a rarity for the physician — because Williams asked him to provide some written advice.
“Williams said he wanted support for a decision that had already been made,” he said.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine P. Baldwin seemed almost angry at times during her cross-examination of Stejskal.
She hunched over the podium toward Stejskal, seeming to grow frustrated with equivocated answers about how complete his report was.
“These aren’t trick questions,” she said. “This is what’s in your report.”
Baldwin used her cross-examination of mitigation expert Carmeta Albarus to hammer on the harsh details of the case, asking if the people who spoke well of Bell in Jamaica knew about what he had done in the United States.
“Did they know how he shot the police officer in the head?” she asked. “Did they know that he bragged to his friends that … [Timbrook] needed to die, and that he ought to be shot in the head because he often wore a bulletproof vest?”
Bell’s new legal team also sought to prove how easy it would have been to find witnesses in Jamaica by presenting their own, including his ex-wife, Barbara Williams.
Speaking in a strong Jamai-can patois, Mrs. Williams summed up her four-year relationship with Bell in a sentence.
“I got the best of him,” she said.
Mrs. Williams also gave the court its first look at what some mitigation witnesses would have said had they been called in 2001.
Bell’s execution would take a terrible toll on her daughter by Bell, Mrs. Williams said.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “Maybe she’d end up in a psychiatric ward.”
Joanne Nicholson, the grandmother of three of Bell’s children by another woman, went into even more detail, telling of Bell’s life before the shooting.
Bell lived with Nicholson and her daughter Tracie for three years before the incident.
He was “very nice, very respectful toward me,” she said. Bell was “an excellent provider. He made sure [the children] had formula and diapers.” He was a “very good father, very caring father.”
Life has been hard for Bell’s three children since the 1999 shooting, Nicholson said.
“They’re old enough to see … they read things on TV,” she said, choking up. “It’s going to be hard. We love him so much.”
Nicholson’s words drew a combination of tears and quiet laughter from members of the Timbrook family, who were seated with Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Iden and three attorneys from his staff.
The hearing resumes at 9 a.m. today with the commonwealth’s side of the story.
* Contact Garren Shipley at email@example.com
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