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Bell awaiting hearing for date of execution

Court notifications necessary before judge issues order

By Garren Shipley -- Daily Staff Writer

More than two weeks have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Edward N. Bell’s last, best chance to avoid Virginia’s death chamber.

But a combination of Supreme Court rules and Virginia law means it could still be almost a month before a local judge even holds a hearing to set an execution date.

Bell, a Jamai-can national, was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to death for the 1999 murder of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook.

His appeals wended their way through the legal system, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court over the summer.

At least four of the nine justices agreed earlier this year to hear his case, leading Chief Justice John Roberts to postpone the execution, then set for July 24 by Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

But the justices did a surprising about-face just five days after oral arguments, dismissing the case as “improvidently granted” in a one-sentence order.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has published the order, and lawyers on all sides know of its contents, Virginia’s death penalty laws are very specific about when execution dates are to be set. A Winchester Circuit Court judge cannot issue an execution order until Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell notifies the court that both the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond and the U.S. Supreme Court have completed their review of Bell’s legal challenge.

“We don’t know when that will be, but [we] anticipate [it will be] soon,” said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for McDonnell.

Official notifications for the Supreme Court aren’t a quick process. They typically take 25 days under the high court’s rules, according to a spokeswoman for the court.

Once McDonnell’s notification arrives at the Circuit Court clerk’s office in Winchester, a judge will have 10 days to set an execution date no more than 60 days hence.

Though Bell can file another challenge to his conviction, federal law makes such an effort a long shot at best.

Not only would he have to find new evidence that wasn’t available during his trial, the evidence would have to be so overwhelming that “no reasonable factfinder would have found the applicant guilty of the offense,” the law states.

Bell’s lawyers have been back in court for their client in recent days, but not in regard to any sort of appeal.

His lawyers filed suit in Richmond earlier this year in an effort to compel what they say is adequate medical treatment for a painful growth on the back of his head dating back to his arrest in Winchester.

Lawyers for McDonnell’s office argue that the treatment Bell has received to date has been adequate.

* Contact Garren Shipley at gshipley@nvdaily.com

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