A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a death sentence against a Nevada man convicted of killing two young girls a quarter-century ago, because the prosecutor made false statements to scare jurors into believing only execution would keep the killer off the streets.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Nevada authorities to remove Ricky David Sechrest from death row pending possible further appeals and resentencing.
Maggie Schindler, 10 -- whom the court opinion refers to as Maggie Weaver -- and Carly Villa, 9, were kidnapped from an ice-skating rink in Reno in May 1983, and their bodies were found in Logomarsino Canyon east of Reno a few weeks later.
Later that year, Sechrest, then 22, was convicted of kidnapping and murder and sentenced to death.
The three-judge panel of the appeals court, vacating the death penalty, cited prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective legal counsel for Sechrest.
"A prosecutor's misleading and inflammatory arguments may violate a defendant's due process right to a fair trial," said the opinion, written by Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson.
In Sechrest's case, Pregerson wrote, "the prosecutor repeatedly misled the jurors by suggesting that a decision by the Board of Pardon Commissioners could (and likely would) free Sechrest if the jury did not return a verdict imposing the death sentence."
The prosecutor told jurors the board could commute the sentence "tomorrow," Pregerson said. In fact, the alternative to a death sentence for Sechrest -- who had a long criminal record -- would have been life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"The rule has always been that neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers can misstate the law in their arguments to a jury," said lawyer Michael Pescetta, who helped represent Sechrest in his appeal.
Nevada could seek a rehearing by the full circuit court or review by the U.S. Supreme Court. The state attorney general's office did not return calls inquiring about its plans.
If the state does not pursue those options, the case goes back to the U.S. District Court in Nevada for a jury to resentence Sechrest.