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Supreme Court set to take up Bell argument

Hearing will be killer’s last chance to sway justices from the death penalty

By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer

Edward N. Bell’s date with the U.S. Supreme Court next week will no doubt have grave implications for the Jamaican national’s bid to avoid the death chamber.

But it also could have serious implications for other death row inmates all around the country.

Bell was convicted in 2001 of the 1999 murder of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook. His case has been wending its way through the court system ever since.

A Winchester Circuit Court judge had ordered Bell executed in mid-April, but Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine ordered a stay April 1 in order to give the U.S. Supreme Court time to rule on the constitutionality of lethal injection in the case of Baze v. Rees.

Chief Justice John Roberts issued a second stay of execution for Bell in May, when the high court decided to take his case to consider whether he received adequate help from his attorneys during his sentencing.

If the court rules against Bell, his only chance to avoid the death chamber would be intervention by Kaine.

Wednesday’s hearing will be the last chance for Bell’s lawyers and the Virginia attorney general’s office to sway the nine justices on a complicated question of legal standards and deference.

But Supreme Court justices are seldom passive during oral arguments, peppering lawyers from both sides with rapid-fire questions before retiring to consider the case for a period of weeks or months.

Questions during the 30-minute oral argument period often indicate which way the panel is leaning in a case or where the focus of the court’s written opinion will be.

At its most basic level, though, the court will answer a question of whether state or federal courts are in the driver’s seat when a condemned inmates case is reviewed by the federal courts.

Bell’s lawyers have long contended that the condemned inmate’s legal team at trial didn’t do enough to convince the jury that Bell should be sentenced to life in prison rather than death.

The Virginia Supreme Court rejected that argument and upheld Bell’s death sentence.

Under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Congress instructed federal courts to stop second-guessing state courts on matters that have already been “adjudicated on the facts.” That slams the door on most state prisoners asking the federal courts to intervene.

But the lawyers handling Bell’s appeal say his case is the rare exception — a U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg held an evidentiary hearing, and brought new evidence into the record.

That means the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit should have taken a fresh look at Bell’s case, they say, rather than deferring to the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell’s office argues that the “new evidence” heard by the federal court was nothing more than a rehash of evidence already reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

A ruling in Bell’s favor could bring the death penalty in the U.S. grinding to a halt, according to the commonwealth.

“Virtually every inmate alleging ineffective assistance of counsel could meet the test because it is almost always possible to find an uninterviewed witness or unread document,” they wrote in their brief for the nine justices.

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

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