A judge has been appointed to Kentucky's longest-running Death Row case after an Associated Press inquiry into why it had been pending 16 months without a judge.
The case of Karu Gene White, 54, who was sentenced to death in 1980 for killing three people, had been on hold due to questions about whether he is mentally disabled. Chief Regional Circuit Judge John David Caudill of Floyd County appointed himself Wednesday to oversee White's case, an appeal that has been pending for more than a decade.
The Administrative Office of the Courts told AP the court system had been unaware of the lapse.
White killed 75-year-old Charles Gross, his wife, 74-year-old Lula Gross, and 79-year-old Sam Chaney during a February 1979 store robbery in Haddix, an Appalachian mountain community of about 2,270 people in Breathitt County.
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White's case has passed through multiple judges, the last of which was Gary D. Payne of Lexington, who fully retired from the bench in December 2011. Since then, the case sat dormant while a request by White's attorneys waited.
Jamie Neal, a spokeswoman for The Administrative Office of the Courts in Frankfort, said officials were unaware of the lapse until AP asked about the case. Neal said there's no written policy on what to do when a judge retires while handling a pending case. Instead, Neal said, the retiring senior judge and the judge administering the special judge program are supposed to work together to see that the administrator is notified of all pending matters.
Payne told AP on Thursday he hasn't kept track of the case since leaving the bench and didn't know what was supposed to happen when he retired.
White's attorneys did not immediately return a phone message and email.
Shelley Catherine Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Attorney General's office, said since Payne's retirement, prosecutors have "actively litigated" the mental disability issue in a related federal appeal.
"As shown by the hundreds of pleadings we have filed throughout the history of this case our office has fought aggressively to bring closure to the victims' families and we will continue to do so," Johnson said.
White has been on Death Row for more than three decades — twice the average 15-year stay for a condemned inmate in Kentucky.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics lists 3,158 people on death row as of Dec. 31, 2010, the last year available. Only about 100 are as old as White's case.
White's guilt is undisputed. During his trial testimony, he admitted robbing the store and answered, "I must have," when asked whether he struck the victims. And in a legal brief filed nearly a decade ago, his own attorneys acknowledged that he participated in the robbery and the beatings.
Chaney and the Grosses lived at the store and residents knew that even if it was closed they could make an after-hours purchase simply by knocking on the back door.
At his trial, White testified that he had known the victims all his life and considered them "real good people." But he also acknowledged that he wanted their money — rumored at the time to amount to $60,000 or more in cash stored in hidden jars and wallets. The take, however, was just $7,000.
After the killings, White said he bought marijuana and went home to bed.
White has raised numerous issues over the years, including the long delay in implementing his death sentence and the fact that he was sentenced to death while one co-defendant, Chuck Fisher, received immunity in exchange for his testimony, and the other, Tommy L. Bowling, was paroled after serving just eight years of a 140-year term.
Fisher was only 16 at the time of the murders; Bowling was 17. Bowling, now 52, was convicted in Florida of nine counts of molestation and sexual battery of a child and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His current released date is in 2025.
Fisher could not be located for comment.
After a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that mentally disabled defendants are ineligible for execution, White's attorneys raised the issue.
The attorney general's office wants an evaluation performed at the Kentucky Correctional Psychiatric Center in La Grange. White's attorneys have argued that he can't be objectively evaluated there because it's a state facility. He is entitled, they contend, to an independent assessment, but cannot obtain one without state funds.
Payne rejected that request, prompting White's lawyers to ask for reconsideration. The request is pending.