News and Tribune

October 17, 2013

Numerous motions heard in Hooten's murder, rape case

Dismissal of the death penalty was argued


JEFFERSONVILLE — The potentially long process of picking a jury that will decide whether accused murderer Richard Carley Hooten Jr. could be put to death began Thursday.

Several motions were heard in Clark County Circuit Court No. 4, including requests about how the jury selection process will unfold and whether the state will be allowed to seek the death penalty in the case.

Hooten admitted to local media shortly after he was arrested for the March 2 crime that he raped and murdered his neighbor, Tara Willenborg, 17, in the Clarksville apartment where she lived with her boyfriend. Hooten has been charged with murder, class B felony rape, class B felony criminal deviate conduct and being a habitual offender, and may face the death penalty.

Hooten has served time in Kentucky on three separate occasions, twice for assault and once for escape. He also served 15 years in the Georgia Department of Correction after being convicted of rape, aggravated sodomy and aggravated assault; and also has a previous conviction in Clark County for sexual battery and residential entry.

Hooten’s attorney, Brent Westerfield, began making his case against the death penalty, which was one of the motions filed by the defense.

Two experts testified to flaws in the death penalty, both of whom are part of the consortium of researchers that comprise the Capital Jury Project. The Capital Jury project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on the decisions of jurors, why they voted for life or death in capital cases and whether those decisions are in keeping with the law.

Wanda Foglia, a professor in law and justice studies at Rowan University, in New Jersey, said the findings presented encompassed about two decades worth of capital murder trials across 14 states, including Indiana, and the result was that jurors do not apply the law correctly.

“About half of the jurors decide the sentence before the sentencing phase begins,” she said. “About half don’t understand they could consider any relevant mitigating evidence.”

She added that many jurors don’t trust the system and even if the court sentences the defendant to life in prison with no parole, the jurors still believe the person convicted will be let out of prison early.

Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart questioned the bias involved in the study and how the study was verified.

Foglia said people on both sides of the issue — for and against the death penalty — were involved in the study or the project wouldn’t have been approved for funding by the National Science Foundation.

During a break in the day-long proceedings Stewart explained why he sought the death penalty in the case.

“I think that’s the appropriate penalty,” he said. “And what [Westerfield’s] motion is trying to do is hold the death penalty unconstitutional, which would mean that I could not go forward on my death sentence. And I think any sentence less than a death would not be appropriate in this case.”

When asked why Stewart filed the request for the death sentence, he said because of the mitigating circumstances that were alleged, including murder during the course of a rape, murder during the course of criminal deviant conduct and the fact that Hooten was on probation.

Earlier in the day, Marla Sandys, professor at the Indiana University School of Criminal Justice, testified as an expert on jury decision-making.

Her testimony included studies that were presented that show jurors fail to follow court instruction, have predetermined a decision on whether or not the capital crime warrants the death penalty and mainly that the selection process can lead to impartiality on the jury if it is done in groups.

The defense attorneys have asked Judge Vicki Carmichael to allow for individual sequester voir dire, which would allow each potential juror in the jury pool to be individually questioned by the attorneys rather than to be questioned as, and selected out of, a group of jurors. In addition, a request was made to begin sequestration of the jurors at the time they are selected to serve on the jury.

Stewart asked that the jury selection be made  in groups, and that the jury be sequestered once the trial begins.

Stewart agreed the typical selection process should probably not take place with the Hooten trial because of the media coverage it has already received and the level of crime that was alleged to be committed. He suggested that potential jurors be interviewed in a pool of four to eight jurors at a time.

Westerfield’s co-counsel, Andrew Adams, and another of Hooten’s attorneys, said that to select a jury for the William Clyde Gibson trial — which is set to begin next week in Floyd County and for which Adams is also an attorney — it took the attorneys four, 14-hour days, interviewing potential jurors in groups of five to select enough people from Dearborn County to sit on a jury for the case.

After the motions were presented, Carmichael took them under advisement and will have 90 days to file her answers to whether the various requests will be allowed.

One decision that was made Thursday was that the trial will not begin on the Nov. 12 date that was set before Thursday’s hearing.

“A new date will be forthcoming,” Carmichael said.

Stewart objected to the defense’s requested trial date of April 2015. Carmichael ordered the attorneys to meet within the next 30 days and come up with a potential trial date. Stewart added that some time this summer would be a more likely date.

“Whenever it is, we’re required to be ready and I’ll be ready,” he said.