Death Row Inmate’s Sentence to Be Reviewed

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Washington—A Tennessee man convicted of murdering an elderly couple in 1980 has been granted a review of his sentencing by the Supreme Court.

Gary Bradford Cone, who is currently sitting on death row, had mounted an insanity defense during his trial, claiming that post-traumatic stress disorder incurred during a stint in Vietnam, as well as drug use, had led him to the crime.

He was accused of beating to death Shipley Todd, 93, and his 79-year-old wife Cleopatra, in their Memphis home. The jury found Cone guilty and sentenced him to death for the crime.

In 1993, Cone filed a request to access information from the Memphis DA’s office. Some of this information included communications from the police and the FBI describing Cone as a drug addict, as well as statements from witnesses that described him as “wild-eyed” and “weird.”

This information, ruled the Supreme Court, should have been revealed through the pretrial discovery phase, during which the prosecution must provide such exculpatory material to defense attorneys. Instead, it was the convict’s own open-records request that turned it up.

Supreme Court justices, including Stephen Breyer and David Souter, showed visible anger at the Tennessee prosecutors’ failure to disclose all the evidence. Said Breyer, “You’re saying that the lawyer, the trained lawyer for the government, who knew this information and knew the defense, just…overlooked it by accident?”

Later, after Jennifer Smith, a prosecutor representing Tennessee, claimed that the state was not required to hand over this evidence, Justice Souter said to her, “I believe you have just made a statement to me that is utterly irrational.”

Cone’s guilt is not being debated. However, said the high court, the lower courts never admitted the omitted evidence during the sentencing hearing. Had they done so, Cone may have been eligible life in prison rather than for the death penalty.

Cone has already appealed multiple times, and the Supreme Court has previously rejected two appeals, thereby reinstating his death sentence, on different grounds. The justices have vacated the case and remanded it to federal trial courts. It will be decided there whether or not the withheld evidence, had it been admitted, would have changed the sentencing in Cone’s initial trial.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion for the court. Also concurring were Souter and Breyer, while Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented. Justice Samuel Alito dissented in part and concurred in part.

 

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