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Thursday, July 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

High Court Reinstates Execution for Ky. Killer

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty Monday for a man who left a pair of scissors in a pregnant woman's neck when he killed her and her boyfriend.

Roger Wheeler's DNA matched blood left at the October 1997 crime scene in Louisville where police found Nigel Malone and Nairobi Warfield dead in the apartment the couple shared.

Malone had been stabbed nine times, and the pregnant Warfield strangled to death, with scissors sticking out of her neck.

Though the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for Wheeler, the Sixth Circuit awarded Wheeler habeas relief.

On review, the federal appeals court had found that Wheeler suffered a violation of his Sixth and 14th Amendment rights when the trial judge excused a juror who equivocated when asked in voir dire about his comfort imposing the death penalty.

The Supreme Court summarily reversed Monday, finding that this determination departed from the "substantial deference" that federal panels must accord to state-court rulings in habeas proceedings.

"The trial judge's decision to excuse Juror 638 did not violate clearly established federal law by concluding that Juror 638 was not qualified to serve as a member of this capital jury," the unsigned decision states.

While the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act required deference, the justices said that "it failed to ask the critical question: Was the Kentucky Supreme Court's decision to affirm the excusal of Juror 638 for cause 'so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement'?"

"A fair-minded jurist could readily conclude that the trial judge's exchange with Juror 638 reflected a 'diligent and thoughtful voir dire'; that she considered with care the juror's testimony; and that she was fair in the exercise of her 'broad discretion' in determining whether the juror was qualified to serve in this capital case," the unsigned opinion states. "Juror 638's answers during voir dire were at least ambiguous as to whether he would be able to give appropriate consideration to imposing the death penalty."

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