4th Ruling Issued in Death Sentence : Trial Held Fair for Man Called ‘Animal’ by Prosecutor
Over bitter dissent, the Supreme Court on Monday upheld the murder conviction and death sentence imposed on a Florida defendant whom the prosecutor called an “animal” who should have had his own face “blown away” by the man he shot between the eyes.
In a decision marked by unusually harsh exchanges between the justices, the court voted 5 to 4 to reject an appeal by Death Row inmate Willie Jasper Darden. It was the fourth time that the grisly 12-year-old case had come before the justices.
Darden was accused of shooting a Florida store owner at close range, ordering the victim’s wife to engage in sex with him as her husband lay dying and then severely wounding a 16-year-old boy who had sought to help the couple.
Remarks Called Improper
The court majority, in an opinion by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., concluded that, although the prosecutor’s remarks were improper, they were not sufficient to have deprived Darden of a fair trial.
In dissent, Justice Harry A. Blackmun accused the court of tolerating a “level of fairness” in a criminal trial “so low it should make conscientious prosecutors cringe.”
Blackmun, joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens, criticized the court for its “impatience” with Darden’s repeated appeals--and assailed Chief Justice Warren E. Burger for taking the rare step last fall of publicly disclosing his opposition to the court’s decision to review the case.
Reviewed by 95 Judges
Burger, noting that over the years about 95 federal and state judges already had reviewed the case, had called Darden’s claims “meritless.” The chief justice repeated that observation in a concurring opinion Monday--and added that “at some point, there must be finality.”
Blackmun, in turn, accused Burger of undermining public respect for the court’s case-review process by openly suggesting that he had made up his mind against Darden before the case was fully presented to the court.
Darden was charged in the 1973 shooting death of Carl Turman, a Lakeland furniture store owner. At trial, a state prosecutor referred to Darden as an “animal” who should not be let out of his cell without “a leash” held by a guard. “I wish (Turman) had had a shotgun in his hand . . . and had blown (Darden’s) face off,” the prosecutor said. “I wish I could see him sitting here with no face, blown away by a shotgun.”
In a subsequent appeal of his conviction, Darden asserted that prosecutorial misconduct had deprived him of a fair trial. Ethical codes bar prosecutors from expressing personal opinions or from seeking to inflame a jury.
Darden contended also that he had been denied effective assistance of counsel and that a prospective juror had been improperly excluded because of the juror’s views on capital punishment.
The court majority rejected all three of Darden’s contentions (Darden vs. Wainwright, 85-5319). The justices acknowledged that the prosecutor’s comments deserved the condemnation they received from every court that had reviewed the case--but they noted that not one of those courts concluded that the remarks had made the trial unfair.
‘A Vicious Animal’
Powell pointed out that Darden’s attorney himself had told the jury that whoever committed the crime “would have to be a vicious animal.” Further, Powell said, there was strong evidence against Darden, reducing the likelihood that the jury would be influenced by a prosecutor’s mere argument.
“We agree . . . that Darden’s trial was not perfect--few are--but neither was it fundamentally unfair,” Powell said.
Blackmun’s dissent said that the trial outcome rested heavily on whether the jurors believed Darden’s claims of innocence. The prosecution’s attack on Darden’s “very humanity” could well have affected the jury’s evaluation of his credibility, depriving him of a fair trial, Blackmun said.
In other actions, the court:
--Saved the government what the Reagan Administration said could have been hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue by ruling that tax-exempt charitable organizations may be taxed on income from group insurance they provide for their members.
The court, by a 6-1 vote, said that the American Bar Endowment must pay taxes on dividends assigned to the organization by the more than 50,000 lawyers enrolled in its insurance program. Such dividends--calculated at $19 million over a recent four-year period--are used by the endowment to help fund legal research and education projects.
Marshall, writing for the court, said that Congress had intended to prevent such organizations from engaging in unfair competition with taxable businesses. Stevens dissented and Justices Powell and Sandra Day O’Connor, without explanation, did not participate in the case (U.S. vs. American Bar Endowment, 85-599).
--Ordered a federal appeals court in San Francisco to reconsider a 1985 decision that private landholders are entitled to “just compensation” for water rights acquired by the state of Hawaii. Hawaiian officials, backed by nine other Western states, including California, had told the justices that the appellate ruling would unfairly limit the ability of states to control water resources within their boundaries (Ariyoshi vs. Robinson, 85-406).