Posted July 7, 2006 | comments Leave a comment

Judge rules Bell won’t get new sentencing hearing

By Garren Shipley-- Daily Staff Writer

HARRISONBURG — The hearing where Edward N. Bell was sentenced to die was seriously flawed, but not badly enough to overturn his sentence and send the matter back to state court, a federal judge ruled July 6.

U.S. District Judge James P. Jones shocked the courtroom, ruling from the bench that Bell’s trial team of Jud Fischel and Mark Williams made an inexcusable decision to not even interview witnesses who could have helped their client’s case.

Bell was convicted in 2001 of the 1999 slaying of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook and sentenced to death.

He was set to die in January 2005, but Jones stepped in and stayed the execution until the federal courts could review the case.

Most of the 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 Fischel and 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.

Jones said the biggest failing came when the two lawyers left it up to a court-appointed psychiatrist to find people who could “humanize” Bell to the jury.

In doing so, they missed easily accessible witnesses who could have testified to Bell’s relationship with his children, prior good character and relationships with others, the judge said.

Regardless, “I have determined that prejudice has not been shown,” Jones said, a pronouncement that left jaws hanging open across the courtroom. He went on to say that a “reasonable” juror probably would have sentenced Bell to death because of the mountain of character evidence against him.

For much of the hearing, the wind seemed to be blowing in Bell’s favor.

Jones frequently interrupted lawyers to ask his own questions of witnesses, and even sparred with Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine P. Baldwin over the commonwealth’s assertion that the meager mitigation case mounted by Fischel and Williams represented a strategic decision, not bad lawyering.

The decision means only the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the U.S. Su-preme Court and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine stand between Bell and the death chamber. But Bell’s team hasn’t given up.

Jones conceded that his decision could be a thorny one, and gave Bell permission to appeal it to the Fourth Circuit. That pro-cess could take as long as nine months, said James Connell, lead counsel on Bell’s new team.

Still, Jones’ last-minute twist didn’t catch them unawares, either.

“I am rarely surprised by a court’s ruling,” Connell said.

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

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