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Posted July 8, 2006 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Numbers weigh against success of Bell’s appeal
By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer
WINCHESTER — Now that a federal court has declined to overturn Edward N. Bell’s death sentence, the convicted murderer’s odds of staying alive have declined precipitously.
Bell was convicted in 2001 of the 1999 slaying of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook. He has exhausted all of his state appeals, and a judge threw out his entire federal appeal on Thursday.
That leaves only the U.S. Court of Appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court and the governor — long shots all — between Bell and lethal injection.
A 2000 study of all capital cases from 1973 to 1995 found that death row inmates in Virginia are far less likely to have their convictions overturned than inmates in every other state.
Only 6 percent of death penalty cases that reached the level of a federal habeas corpus petition — where Bell’s case is now — were reversed during the 22-year period, compared to 40 percent nationally, according to the study, done by two Columbia University law school professors.
U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones did find error in Bell’s trial, but not enough to send Bell back to Winchester to be re-sentenced.
Jones ruled Thursday that the efforts of lawyers Jud Fischel and Mark Williams were seriously flawed. The revolving-door cast of Bell’s defense team had little if any real idea of what each member was working on, witnesses said at the hearing.
Fischel testified that Williams — who had never worked on a capital case before — had the primary responsibility for developing mitigating witnesses, while Williams said that the bulk of the mitigation work was done by a state-provided psychiatry expert.
Bell’s case was “the most disorganized case I have ever seen,” said Marie Deans, a mitigation expert later fired by Fischel.
“It bordered on absurdity, really,” she said on the stand this week.
Deans herself was part of the miscommunication. While she was appointed by the court to find “humanizing” evidence for Bell, she never did any more than interview Bell himself.
“I regret that decision,” she said.
At the interview with Bell, one of his attorneys at the time, Lloyd Snook, told her he already had a family contact list, Deans testified, so she didn’t press Bell for more information.
“I should not have allowed Lloyd [Snook] to stop me from getting the information from Eddie directly,” she said.
Snook’s failure to develop mitigation evidence led him to resign from Bell’s legal team. Once Fischel and Williams were on the job, they faced an uphill fight.
At the time, the Jamaican community in Winchester was perceived as a minority group that was often unemployed and involved with drug-running to and from the racetrack in Charles Town, W.Va., Fischel said.
Winchester had been galvanized by the murder, and a swirl of press reports that painted Timbrook in a heroic light made it imperative to move the trial out of town, the attorney said.
Fischel said Timbrook’s funeral — attended by thousands — made that abundantly clear.
Timbrook “had done everything right in that city. He was loved by many, respected by everyone,” the attorney said.
Even so, the team did have a strategy: prove to the jury that life in prison would be far worse punishment than execution.
Fischel said he’d used the strategy to great effect before, and was preparing to bring in an inmate to testify when the judge barred him from doing so.
But Jones agreed with the commonwealth’s argument that, even with mitigating evidence presented at the hearing, the 2001 jury would have still sent Bell to death row.
Lawyers for the commonwealth took no chances, using every opportunity to demonstrate for Jones the severity and brutality of the murder.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine P. Baldwin used her cross-examination of defense mitigation expert Calmeta Albarus to drive home just how depraved Bell was.
“Did you include in your report that he threatened police officers, to kill them, while he was in jail?” Baldwin asked. “You are aware that it was Edward Bell’s actions that prevented officer Timbrook from being a loving father?”
This was a “brutal, premeditated, horrific crime,” she said. “[Timbrook] didn’t even have his gun drawn.”
For the jury, she argued, there was no mitigation.
“It all comes back to who Edward Bell was,” she said.
* Contact Garren Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org
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