Death Penalty Vacated for Horrific AZ Murder

     (CN) – A jury must decide whether an Arizona man deserves death for a methamphetamine-fueled murder and dismemberment, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     In the summer of 1995, Michael Murdaugh’s girlfriend, Rebecca Rohrs, told him that another man had offered to pay her for oral sex at a gas station.
     Murdaugh, a habitual meth user, told his girlfriend to invite the man over so they could “teach [him] a lesson.” When David Reynolds showed up, Murdaugh and his friend Jesse Dezarn took him hostage at gunpoint while Rohrs and another woman went through Reynolds’ van. After Murdaugh found out that the women had not worn gloves to do so, he indicated that he would now have to kill Reynolds.
     Murdaugh binged on drugs through the night and then beat Reynolds to death with a meat tenderizer and a metal jackhammer spike, the court found. Before leaving with Dezarn to get rid of the body, Murdaugh threatened to peal the skin off of Dezarn’s children if he told anyone about the crime. They loaded the body into a horse trailer and traveled to a campsite north of Phoenix, where Murdaugh dismembered Reynolds’ body. He sliced off the corpse’s finger pads and pulled out the teeth, tossing them out his window as he drove. He buried Reynold’s head, hands and torso in two different shallow graves.
     The police soon found Reynolds’ van, checked his cellphone records, and were led directly to Rohrs. They eventually found the murder scene at Murdaugh’s house, which no one had bothered to clean up. Murdaugh confessed to killing Reynolds and told investigators where to find his body. He also admitted to the previous killing of one Douglas Eggert, also with a meat tenderizer.
     A Phoenix judge sentenced Murdaugh to death in 2001, and the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentence on appeal. In a subsequent habeas petition, Murdaugh claimed, among other things, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Ring v. Arizona gave him the right to have a jury decide “the presence or absence of the aggravating factors required by Arizona law for imposition of the death penalty.”
     A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit agreed on Friday, vacating Murdaugh’s death sentence and remanding the case for a new sentencing hearing.
     “We conclude that the absence of a jury at the sentencing stage had a ‘substantial and injurious effect or influence’ on Murdaugh’s sentence of death,” Judge Dorothy Nelson wrote for the San Francisco-based appeals court.
     “The expert reports, though not drafted for the purpose of mitigation, provided some details about Murdaugh’s chronic drug use, which a jury might have found established drug impairment,” Nelson added. “Because a jury could have found that a preponderance of the evidence supported the (G)(1) mitigating factor, and voted for leniency on that basis, the Ring error was prejudicial. We must grant the habeas petition.”

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