By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Oct. 19, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
Connecticut's death row population grew this week with a Bridgeport jury's verdict recommending death in the penalty phase of the prosecution of Russell Peeler Jr.
Peeler, a violent drug lord, had ordered the execution of 8-year-old Leroy "B.J." Brown and his mother, Karen Clarke. Clarke was the fiance of Rudolph Snead, another Bridgeport drug figure. B.J. had witnessed Peeler kill Snead and was scheduled to testify in Peeler's murder trial.
The killings sparked outrage in the Bridgeport community. Controversy surrounded the disclosure of the names and addresses of Brown and his mother to Peeler's defense lawyer. In some circles that lawyer was criticized for disclosing the information to his client. That lawyer was disqualified in the Snead murder trial because the state announced that the lawyer would be called as a witness in the Brown and Clarke murder cases. Peeler's conviction in the Snead case was later reversed on appeal when the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the disqualification denied Peeler counsel of his choosing.
In the execution of B.J. Brown and Karen Clarke, the state claimed that Russell Peeler enlisted his brother, Adrian, as the trigger man. A local crack addict, Josephine Lee, was persuaded to help gain access to the victims' home.
Russell and Adrian were tried separately for the crime of capital felony.
The state had informed the court that it intended to offer evidence that Russell implicated his brother in the murders. Since Russell possessed a Fifth Amendment right not to testify, his brother's lawyers could not cross examine him and challenge the offered statements.
A judge ruled that the brothers were to be tried separately. Two different juries heard essentially the same evidence. In Adrian Peeler's case the jury acquitted him of murder. Instead, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 20 years. Adrian was charged as what the law refers to as a principal (that is, the actual actor who committed the crime), Russell was charged as an accessory to capital felony.
Under the concept of accessory liability one who enlists, solicits, aids or abets another in the commission of a crime may be tried and punished as if he was the principal offender.
Capital crimes are tried in two segments: the guilt phase (to determine responsibility), and the penalty phase. In Connecticut a defendant can choose a trial before a jury of 12 (most other crimes are tried to a jury of 6), or before a three-judge panel.
The jury in the guilt phase convicted Russell Peeler of capital felony. That same jury could not agree in the first penalty phase and Peeler was sentenced to life imprisonment without benefit of parole. That decision was reversed when the state Supreme Court later ruled that the state was entitled to retry the penalty phase.
This jury would not need to decide Peeler's guilt, but the state was charged with the burden of proving the existence of what the law describes as an aggravating factor. The capital felony statute identifies limited circumstances that constitute aggravating factors. Once an aggravating factor is proven, the defendant may introduce evidence of mitigating factors. It is then the task of the jury to determine whether the aggravating factor or factors outweigh the mitigating factors. A jury may only recommend death if it finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating factors outweigh any mitigating factors and finds that death is the appropriate sentence.
Shortly before its verdict was reached, the Peeler jury sent a question to the judge asking that if they found that the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, could they also find that life imprisonment was a sufficient sentence. The judge instructed them that in the event that they found that the aggravators outweighed the mitigators then death was the required verdict. Our Supreme Court has previously ruled that the court's instructions to the jury must make it clear to them that in finding that the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors they must in essence decide that death is the appropriate sentence. This question and the judge's response will form the basis of the many appellate issues Peeler will pursue.
Shortly before the evidence began in the penalty phase the Connecticut Post published the names, ages and communities of those selected as jurors, leading to a request by the defense for a mistrial and the striking of two members of the jury who were fearful of continuing. The Post was praised in some circles but strongly criticized in many others.
By the time Peeler's appeals are exhausted, and if he is eventually executed, he may well have outlived some of the older jurors who decided his fate.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com