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Dismissal clears the way for new execution date to be set

By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Convicted murderer Edward N. Bell lost his last, best hope of avoiding Virginia's death chamber on Monday.

The Jamaican national's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was dismissed with a one-sentence order, all but ending his seven-year odyssey through the legal system.

Bell was convicted in 2001 of the 1999 slaying of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook. Monday's ruling clears the way for a new execution date to be set by a Winchester Circuit Court judge.

The high court issued its order with surprising speed. Monday's order came just five days after the court heard oral arguments.

Justices usually hold a case for a period of weeks before handing down a ruling or issuing an order.

But there were several indicators at Wednesday's hearing that the nine justices were leaning toward throwing the case out.

The entire court may have misunderstood what Bell's team had claimed, said Justice John Paul Stevens, a staunch opponent of the death penalty.

"The assumption I think we made when we took the case was that there was a body of evidence that had not been available in the state proceeding that might be available in the federal proceeding," he said.

Bell's team conceded that there was no new evidence excluded by the Virginia Supreme Court.

If there is no new evidence for the court to consider, "maybe we shouldn't have taken the case," Stevens said.

In the end, the rest of the court agreed.

The order drew a muted statement from the office of Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

"Today the Supreme Court issued an order dismissing the federal habeas appeal of Virginia death row inmate Edward Bell as 'improvidently granted,'" wrote McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin in an e-mail.

"We are pleased with the Supreme Court's decision to dismiss Bell's appeal," Martin wrote.

Bell's appeals took a variety of forms. His lawyers alleged that he was mentally retarded, and thus ineligible for the death penalty. They also said his rights as a foreign national under certain treaties had been violated.

But the claim that carried the most weight with judges was that his initial trial team didn't do enough during his sentencing hearing to convince a jury that he should be sentenced to life in prison, rather than death.

Bell's lawyers are disappointed that "the Supreme Court of Virginia, the federal District Court, and now the Supreme Court, have refused to allow Eddie Bell to present all of the evidence which supports a life sentence instead of the death penalty," wrote James G. Connell, part of his appellate team.

"If not for his lawyer's negligence, the jury would have had all the facts -- the good things as well as the bad -- and likely would have returned a verdict for a life sentence," Connell wrote.

While it's not unprecedented for the high court to "DIG" a case, it's certainly uncommon, according to Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA.

"I count about 15 DIGs in the last 10 years. Most aren't in habeas cases, but most grants [of certiorari] aren't in habeas cases, either," he said.

From 1954 to 2004, only 155 cases were dismissed after having been granted a hearing, according to a 2006 paper by legal researchers that University of Cincinnati's College of Law.

The court has thrown out two death penalty reviews since Chief Justice John Roberts took office in 2005, but in both of those cases the justices issued written statements explaining why they dismissed the case.

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

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