WASHINGTON — Robert Keith Woodall killed 16-year-old Sarah Hansen in Greenville, Ky. He raped her, slit her throat and dragged her off to drown in a nearby lake.
Now, nearly 17 years after a crime for which he pled guilty, Woodall is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court will help spare his life. Other fates, too, could turn on how the court handles a convicted man’s silence.
On Wednesday, with Woodall far away on Kentucky’s death row, justices wrangled over an important legal question that his case presents. Defense attorneys say the initial trial judge acted improperly by not instructing the jurors deciding on Woodall’s sentence that they should not consider his refusal to testify on his own behalf during the sentencing hearing.
“They’re going to hold his failure to testify against him,” attorney Laurence E. Komp told the court Wednesday. “That’s the natural inclination of what jurors do.”
If Woodall wins, it could mean judges would be required, at a defendant’s request, to instruct jurors to disregard the defendant’s silence during sentencing. Attorneys call this a “no-adverse-inference” instruction, similar to what is already required during the guilt phase of a trial. But from a court with a generally conservative majority, a Woodall victory seems unlikely.
“You have an incredibly heinous crime,” noted Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., a former federal prosecutor.
Alito’s fellow conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, added his own doubts that jurors weighing Woodall’s fate would have been swayed toward mercy even had the trial judge given the instructions the defense attorney wanted.
“They knew all the horrific details of the crime. They had heard all your mitigating evidence, and you think what tipped the balance…is this failure to give the no-adverse-influence instruction?” Scalia asked Komp. “Really?”
The Supreme Court, moreover, could conservatively dispose of Woodall’s appeal without deciding the big questions surrounding mandatory jury instructions. Instead, justices could brush off Woodall using a law Congress passed to curtail prisoner lawsuits and legal petitions. That 1996 law limits federal courts from overturning state court decisions unless the state court ruling was contrary to “clearly established” legal requirements.
In Woodall’s case, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the death sentence after concluding that the U.S. Supreme Court has not directly addressed certain questions concerning juror instructions during sentencing. Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., noted Wednesday that the questions raised were “a subject of fair-minded disagreement,” while Justice Anthony Kennedy called the issue “unsettled.”
“There was no clearly established law in this case,” Kentucky’s assistant attorney general, Susan R. Lenz, agreed.
Attorneys for both sides sometimes struggled for traction during the hour-long oral argument. Komp, of Manchester, Mo., was appointed by the court to represent Woodall.
Woodall is five feet, four inches tall and weighs about 215 pounds, according to Kentucky prison records. His IQ has been measured to be in the mid-70s, and he was described in court records as “educably mentally retarded.” He is incarcerated on death row at Kentucky State Penitentiary, one of 33 inmates in the state awaiting execution.
Woodall was 22 years old on Jan. 25, 1997, and had previously served prison time on sexual abuse charges, when he abducted Hansen from a Minit Mart parking lot in Greenville. He drove her to Luzerne Lake, where he raped the high school honor student and slit her throat with a box-cutter knife. He pled guilty after being confronted with substantial DNA and other evidence linking him to the crime.
During the six-day penalty phase, Woodall’s trial attorney presented testimony concerning the convicted killer’s impoverished and abusive upbringing. He also asked the judge to advise jurors that the fact that Woodall did not testify should not put him in a bad light. The trial judge refused, saying that he knew of no case law precluding the jury from “considering the defendant’s lack of remorse or explanation of the crime or anything else once guilt has been adjudged.”
A lower federal appeals court concluded that the trial judge’s action violated Woodall’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Fourteen states, including Texas, Idaho and South Carolina, offered support for Kentucky’s bid to reverse the appellate court’s ruling. From the other side, Los Angeles County Public Defender Ronald Brown filed a competing brief urging the Supreme Court to declare that judges must give jurors a “no adverse inference” instruction if defendants requests one.
“Jurors are naturally inclined to draw adverse inferences from the defendant’s silence,” Brown stated in an amicus brief.
As is his custom, Justice Clarence Thomas was the only court member not to speak or ask questions during the oral argument. A decision is expected by the end of June.