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Panel Voids a 3rd Nevada Death Sentence

Law: Appeals court says instructions to jury may have biased it to condemn a man in the killing of a Las Vegas prostitute in 1986.

September 18, 2002|From Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court overturned a Las Vegas murderer's death sentence Tuesday, ruling the man who stabbed a prostitute 45 times in 1986 did not get a fair trial.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said unconstitutional instructions to the jury may have prejudiced jurors to vote for a death sentence after they already had convicted John Valerio.

It is the third Nevada death sentence overturned for the same reason, and 16 of the 85 condemned inmates on Nevada's death row assert similar claims on appeal, said Michael Prescetta, a federal public defender in Las Vegas.

"The result seems positive for us," he said. "When a jury is deciding when to make someone eligible for the death penalty, they have to have objective standards."

Valerio, who will remain in prison pending the outcome of further litigation, was convicted of murdering Karen Blackwell, also of Las Vegas.

Her body, with 45 stab wounds, was found in the trunk of a car wrapped in bedding from Valerio's apartment.

Police said Valerio's bedroom was spattered with blood, and Blackwell's keys and address book were found in his jacket pocket. His name was on a list of customers she kept in her address book.

Valerio denied guilt.

A Clark County jury convicted him in 1988 and found the murder involved "torture, depravity of mind or mutilation."

But the 9th Circuit ruled that "depravity of mind" was too vague for jurors to understand what it was they were voting for.

The decision reverses U.S. District Judge Howard D. McKibben and the Nevada Supreme Court, which upheld the death verdict on grounds the victim suffered torture or serious physical abuse.

"Obviously, we're very disappointed and we're considering where we go from here," said Robert Wieland, Nevada senior deputy attorney general.

The Nevada Legislature eliminated the "depravity of mind" factor in 1995, 15 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the factor was too vague and prejudicial to capital defendants.

The decision also reverses a 2000 decision from the 9th Circuit, which upheld Valerio's execution 3 to 0 without ruling on the merits of his appeal. The circuit reheard the case with 11 judges, and set aside the death sentence Tuesday on a 7-4 vote.

The ruling means Valerio cannot immediately be executed. But it's up to prosecutors whether they wish to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask a new jury to issue a death sentence.

The 9th Circuit also asked a federal judge to determine whether Valerio got a fair trial when jurors were weighing whether to convict him.

The case is Valerio vs. Crawford, 98-99033.

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