Commonwealth's attorney could seek death penalty

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comSeptember 16, 2009 

FRANKFORT — Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson will decide in coming weeks whether to seek the death penalty in the murder case against former gubernatorial candidate and state legislator Steve Nunn.

Nunn, who was charged late Monday with the murder of his former fiancée Amanda Ross, would be eligible for the death penalty because he also allegedly violated a protective order in place at the time of Ross's shooting death.

Police believe Nunn shot Ross in the parking lot of her gated townhouse complex early Friday morning in Lexington.

Larson would not comment on the case or whether he would seek the death penalty against Nunn on Tuesday. But the longtime Fayette County Commonwealth's Attorney is widely known for not cutting deals in murder cases and typically files for the death penalty if there is an aggravating factor in the murder, defense attorneys said Tuesday.

If Larson seeks the death penalty, the already high-profile murder case will come under even more scrutiny, defense attorneys said.

"Any prosecutor is going to feel concern and pressure anytime you have a situation where it could warrant a death penalty," said Bill Johnson, a longtime criminal defense attorney in Frankfort.

Both Nunn and Ross are from well-known families.

Nunn's father, Louie Nunn, was governor from 1967 to 1971. Nunn was a state legislator from 1995 to 2006 and took a job as deputy secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services in 2008. He resigned that post in March after he allegedly hit Ross, who was granted a domestic violence order of protection by a Fayette County judge.

Ross's late father, Terrell Ross, founded the well-known financial company Ross, Sinclaire & Associates, which has deep political ties. Amanda Ross, who worked at the Kentucky Department of Insurance, also was well- known in Frankfort political circles.

Many prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers said Tuesday that factors other than political pressure determine whether a prosecutor asks a jury to consider the death penalty.

"Political pressure has nothing to do with it," said Mark Stanziano, a defense attorney based in Somerset. "Anytime there is a homicide with an aggravator, they charge it as a death penalty case."

Still, many juries are hesitant to deliver death sentences. There are 36 people on Kentucky's Death Row, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Kentucky has executed three people.

Commonwealth's Attorney Larry Cleveland said it's been decades since a Franklin County jury has returned a death verdict.

"When I make that determination, I look at the county that I am in and determine how likely is it that the jury is going to return the death penalty," Cleveland said.

In Fayette County, the last time a jury recommended a death sentence was in 2000, when Virginia Caudill and Jonathan Wayne Goforth were convicted in the beating death of a 73-year-old woman. Caudill and Goforth also stole from the woman, stuck her body in the trunk of a car and set the car on fire.

Stanziano has represented defendants in more than a dozen death penalty cases. Only one of those defendants received the death penalty and that sentence was later overturned by the appellate court, Stanziano said.

Juries typically don't return death sentences unless there are multiple deaths or if children are involved, Stanziano said.

Not all murders are death penalty cases. To be eligible for the death penalty, the murder has must be committed during the commission of another crime, such as burglary, robbery, rape or sodomy. A murder of a police officer, public official or multiple people also qualifies as a death penalty case.

Stanziano said most prosecutors automatically file for the death penalty if it qualifies under the statute so they will not be accused of favoritism.

"No one can accuse you of being a racist or being a politician," Stanziano said. "But they're abdicating their responsibility to look at these cases to determine if (the death penalty) is a legitimate response."

Commonwealth's Attorney Eddy Montgomery prosecuted one of the most high-profile murders in recent history — the 2002 shooting death of Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron. Police arrested the shooter, Danny Shelley, and two other men whom prosecutors believed had planned the hit on Catron.

Shelley was eligible for the death penalty, but Montgomery offered Shelley a life sentence instead in exchange for testimony against the other two men.

Montgomery said Catron's family gave their blessing to the plea deal.

"If the victim's families are OK with it, then the public is generally OK with it," Montgomery said. "We're elected officials. We have to consider public opinion."

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