Sunday, January 20, 2008

Atkins ruling drew widespread attention -
Newport News (VA) Daily Press

Lawyers from near and far were at a hearing that commuted a man's death sentence for murder.

By DANIELLE ZIELINSKI
January 19, 2008

YORK -- Poquoson Circuit Judge Prentis Smiley was on the bench, but that was the only thing normal about the scene in his York County courtroom Thursday.

On the docket was a motions hearing in the case of convicted murderer Daryl Atkins, whose case had dragged on for 10 years and made legal history with a U.S. Supreme Court decision barring the execution of the mentally retarded.

Among the day's witnesses were York-Poquoson Commonwealth's Attorney Eileen Addison and former prosecutor Cathy Krinick, both of whom had been accused of misconduct during Atkins' 1998 criminal trial.

Nearly every member of the commonwealth's attorney's office was there, though none of them was prosecuting a case. Legal scholars came from as far away as Georgia. Local defense attorneys and lawyers from statewide likewise spent hours sitting on hard wooden court benches as ardent spectators of their own profession.

For the legal community, this case was a big one, and Judge Smiley didn't disappoint.

Smiley commuted Atkins' death sentence — a rarity — and found that information withheld by prosecutors could have affected the outcome of the 1998 trial. Atkins had been convicted of capital murder for the August 1996 killing of 21-year-old Langley Airman Eric Nesbitt and had three execution dates set while on death row.

"It was a stunning moment — the most dramatic thing I've ever seen in a courtroom," Williamsburg-based defense attorney David Lee said of the ruling. "It was like watching history unfold."

Atkins had been set for an April retrial on whether he was retarded and could be executed. But what eventually spared his life wasn't his mental state but the conscience of a defense attorney involved in the original criminal trial.

Last year, Leslie Smith — who represented Atkins' co-defendant, William Jones — came forward with allegations that prosecutors turned off a tape recorder during a 1997 interview with Jones and coaxed him to make his story line up better with forensic evidence in the case. Jones testified against Atkins at the 1998 trial and was sentenced to life in prison.

Based on Smith's testimony, Smiley found that prosecutors violated precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady v. Maryland in failing to turn over information to Atkins' defense attorneys that could have been beneficial to his case.

Lawyer Lee and Northern Virginia defense attorney Corinne Magee, who drove down for the hearing, said it was clear from Krinick's testimony that a Brady violation occurred.

"Once Krinick acknowledged that Jones' testimony had shifted, I knew the judge didn't have any choice," Magee said.



Magee said the case made her think about discovery laws in Virginia, which govern how much information must be turned over to the defense in a case. She said that if the state was more liberal in its policies and more information was available, problems like those that Atkins faced might be prevented.

Magee said she was struck by the sheer bravery of Smith, who came forward despite having nothing to gain personally and who let himself be questioned and criticized for his actions. Smith said he hadn't come forward earlier because of his first obligation was to his client, but Jones' appeals were complete.

Carmen Taylor is president of the Hampton chapter of the NAACP and has followed the case since its inception. She also credits Smith and shuddered to think what might have happened if he hadn't come forward.

Taylor stood with Atkins' father Thursday as Smiley announced his ruling.

"I really wanted to jump up and scream," she said. "Inside, I was so elated. This is what we've been pushing for for such a long time."

Taylor said Atkins' father was relieved by the outcome.

"Now he has his son," she said. Atkins' lawyers said Thursday that their client, who had been living in semi-isolation on death row, would now live out his sentence among the general prison population.

The family of Nesbitt, the murder victim, didn't return requests for comment.