Release Date:  November 10, 2008
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

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Oral argument in Bell v. Kelly scheduled for Wednesday, November 12

The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument Wednesday in a case which could have a major impact on federal court review of state death penalty cases.  At issue in the Virginia case of Bell v. Kelly is the ability of a defendant to gain federal court review of a claim, unrelated to his guilt and previously rejected by the state Supreme Court, because he has amended it by adding evidence not presented to the state court.

“The defendant in this case is attempting to circumvent rules which limit federal court review of claims already considered and rejected by the state courts.  Such an evasion would undermine the specific intent of Congress, which was to reduce the delay associated with federal court reconsideration of marginal claims,” said Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

In January 2001, Edward Bell was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Ricky Timbrook, a sergeant with the Winchester, Virginia Police Department.  Bell, an illegal immigrant and a known drug dealer in Winchester, had been arrested on two previous occasions by Sergeant Timbrook.  At trial, witnesses reported Bell’s statements that Timbrook was out to get him and that someone should kill him with a shot to the head, because Timbrook wore a bulletproof vest.

The murder occurred on the night of October 29, 1999.  Sergeant Timbrook and another officer were on patrol in a high-crime district when they spotted two males in an alley.  When one of the males ran, Timbrook gave chase.  As the officer began to overtake him, the suspect turned and shot him in the face. A short time later the 32-year-old sergeant died.  The next morning, officers found Bell hiding in a coal bin in the basement of a house he had broken into near the shooting.  He was wearing the same clothes as the man who shot Sergeant Timbrook, he had gunshot residue on his hands, and $1,800 worth of cocaine was found in his pocket.  The murder weapon was found outside of the basement window.  Police found bullets in Bell’s car and residence of the same type used in the shooting.  While in jail, Bell admitted killing Timbrook to another inmate.

Following Bell’s conviction for the murder, a separate sentencing trial was held to determine if he should receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, or a death sentence.  Although Bell’s attorneys argued for mercy, the jury agreed that he should receive a death sentence.  Bell’s conviction and sentence were upheld by a unanimous Virginia Supreme Court on direct appeal.  Two attorneys were then appointed by the state to assist with his habeas corpus petition, and they also had an investigator.  Among the numerous error claims presented in the petition was one alleging that his trial attorneys did not effectively represent him at the sentencing hearing.  The Virginia Supreme Court reviewed and rejected this and Bell’s other claims, affirming his conviction and sentence.

Bell then sought relief on federal habeas corpus, submitting his claims in the Federal District Court.  For the federal court review, Bell’s attorneys added new evidence to support the claim that his lawyers failed to adequately represent him at sentencing.  After denying Bell’s other claims, the federal judge reconsidered the amended claim and rejected it.  The Federal Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, holding that the Virginia Supreme Court decision was not unreasonable. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, federal courts cannot overturn state convictions on grounds rejected by the state court unless the state court’s decision is unreasonable.

Bell then asked the United States Supreme Court to reconsider the appellate court decision, alleging, among other things, that the Virginia Supreme Court had “refused to consider” his evidence.  When the high court agreed to hear Bell’s appeal, the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation accepted the Virginia Attorney General’s invitation to join the case.  In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, the Foundation argues that a decision to overturn Bell’s death sentence, based upon a claim properly reviewed and rejected by the state’s highest court, would undermine a federal rule which requires a federal court to give deference to the state court’s holding.  CJLF points out that when the state court has reasonably decided the claim, the federal court should not hold a new evidentiary hearing.  Bell’s claim that the state court refused to consider his evidence is simply bogus, and he offers nothing to back up that claim.

“Bell has had more consideration of his claim than the law requires, and his sentence has been upheld by every court that has reviewed it,” said Scheidegger.  “We hope that the Supreme Court enforces the rules enacted to prevent unnecessary delay in such cases,” he added.