Appeals court reduces death sentence

Wednesday, July 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A Denver appeals court on Tuesday reduced the death sentence of a Kellyville man convicted of killing a Creek County woman in 1987. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that there was not sufficient evidence under Oklahoma's death penalty law to justify executing Darrell Lynn Thomas.

Thomas was found guilty of beating and strangling Glenda Jane Powell, 46, at her residence six miles northwest of Sapulpa. He also was convicted of robbing her of jewelry and of several hundred dollars. The only reason prosecutors used to seek Thomas' execution was not supported by the evidence, the judges decided. "We conclude that no reasonable fact finder (juror) could conclude that the murder in this case was heinous, atrocious or cruel, as that term is defined by Oklahoma law," the judges said in a 34-page decision for the six-state court.

The judges also said that an earlier decision by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals, which concluded there was sufficient evidence for the death sentence, "is unreasonable." "Under Oklahoma law, only those murders preceded by torture or serious physical abuse will be deemed to be heinous, atrocious or cruel," the judges said. Powell's murder did not include those factors, they said.

It is rare for appellate judges to reduce a death sentence, Assistant Attorney General Sandra Howard said. Howard, who battles appeals of death-row inmates, said the judges usually order a new penalty-phase trial, giving prosecutors an opportunity to again seek the death penalty. That option was not available in this case because prosecutors offered just the one reason to qualify for the death penalty, said Thomas' attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Vicki Ruth Adams Werneke of Oklahoma City. "I'm very pleased, and Mr. Thomas is very pleased," Werneke said. "He'll be eligible for parole, but there are no guarantees." Werneke added that Thomas also was sentenced to another 10 years for robbing Powell.

The attorney general's staff is "disappointed in the outcome," Howard said. "It was our position on appeal that the evidence was sufficient ... ." Monday's ruling reversed a decision of U.S. District Judge Terry C. Kern in Tulsa, who upheld the death sentence.