Del. Court Upholds Conviction, Sentence of Double Murderer - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Del. Court Upholds Conviction, Sentence of Double Murderer

12/13/2007 1:31 PM ET

DOVER, Del. (AP)- The state Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of a double murderer who narrowly escaped a death sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles.

Michael Jones, 25, was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 for the 1999 drug-related murders in Wilmington of Cedric Reinford, 30, and Maneeka Plant, 24. Plant was the granddaughter of Democratic state Rep. Hazel Plant.

At the time of the killings, Jones, also known as Laquan T. Robinson, was 17 years old and the subject of a murder warrant issued by Connecticut police for a previous homicide.

A New Castle County jury recommended that Jones be sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court issued its ruling before he could be sentenced, making him ineligible for the death penalty. Defense attorneys had unsuccessfully argued before his trial that the death penalty should be precluded.

In his appeal, Jones claimed among other things that prosecutors improperly excluded blacks from the jury, and that the judge improperly admitted evidence, limited cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, and failed to recuse herself after the defense raised doubts about her impartiality.

Although it remanded the case to Superior Court earlier this year for further analysis of the jury selection process, the state Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld Jones' convictions and life sentences.

"After considering the expanded record, we find no merit to Jones' appeal," Justice Henry DuPont Ridgley wrote for the court."

The court found that prosecutors had legitimate reasons for excluding blacks from the jury, either because of their arrest records or occupations. At the end of jury selection, four blacks were seated.

"We find, as did the trial judge, that the prosecutor articulated a credible race-neutral explanation for each of his peremptory challenges," Ridgley wrote.

The justices also said the trial judge did not err in allowing statements made to police by the girlfriend of co-defendant Darrel Page to be admitted as evidence. Among other things, the woman said Page told her that he planned to enlist Jones' help in carrying out the killings, and that Page implied that Jones, who went by the street name "Gotti," was "da man" for committing the murders.

Jones argued that the statements were inadmissible hearsay, but the Supreme Court said they were allowed under the rules of evidence, also noting that Jones' attorneys were able to confront and cross-examine Page's girlfriend at trial.

As it did in upholding Page's life sentence in October, the Supreme Court also found that Superior Court Judge Peggy Ableman did not err in allowing photographs and video from Reinford's murder to be submitted into evidence. Reinford was shot three times in the head as he sat in his car, then doused with gasoline and set on fire. The killers then went to Reinford's home to rob it and shot Plant, his girlfriend, as she huddled over her 7-week son. Reinford's younger brother was also shot but survived.

Finally, the Supreme Court addressed questions of Ableman's impartiality stemming from her refusal to grant the defense a full-day recess during the penalty phase of Jones' trial. Her decision prompted an angry tirade by a defense attorney, who accused her of favoring the prosecution.

The next day, Ableman was overheard talking to her husband at a Wilmington restaurant. A witness submitted an affidavit asserting that Ableman used profanity in referring to Jones' defense counsel and said she "would get the last word and that man on trial would get the death penalty."

In denying Jones' motions for recusal and a new trial, Ableman rejected the witness' account of her restaurant conversation, while admitting that she had exhibited "extreme animosity" toward defense counsel over the disagreement about a recess.

"However, she vehemently denied the affiant's claim that she was going to issue a death sentence," Ridgley wrote, citing Ableman's assertion that she was concerned that the "poor performance" of the defense "made it practically inevitable that the jury would strongly vote death, a recommendation that I would have probably had to follow regardless of my personal convictions."

"While we do not require that a judge be silent with family about events occurring in her courtroom, it was inappropriate for the trial judge to discuss the case in a public setting where she could be overheard and misconstrued," Ridgley wrote. "Notwithstanding that, we accept the trial judge's representations regarding what occurred and her lack of bias."

"Any issue of bias in favor of the death penalty is moot because a life sentence was in fact imposed," Ridgley added.


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