Inmates on death row for Augusta-area murders work through various stages of appeals process

Four men sentenced to die for Augusta-area murders continue to slog through the state's justice system as they await their fate.

Robert O. Arrington, Reinaldo Rivera, Willie W. Palmer and Ernest U. Morrison are at various stages of appeal, according to court documents.

Morrison has been on death row the longest, after pleading guilty in October 1987 to raping and murdering Mary Edna Griffin earlier that year. His sentence was overturned in 2008 because of lack of effort by his defense attorney, who, according to a ruling, didn't even read the discovery in the case or attempt to find witnesses. He also demanded a death sentence for Morrison because he said that was what Morrison wanted.

His current attorneys are waiting to determine whether he will enter a plea or be retried, according to Richmond County District Attorney Ashley Wright.

Richard Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said ineffective counsel is often a reason for the delay in carrying out a death sentence. He cited the recent cases of two separate Alabama death row inmates, who were granted new trials after the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals found their lawyers were ineffective.

"There are really concerns that mistakes have been made sometimes with innocent defendants," Dieter said. "Sometimes you have to allow a second hearing, a new test, a hearing to discuss new evidence, just in case."

In an e-mail, Wright wrote that her staff continues to wait for a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on the appeal for Arrington, who was convicted in May 2004. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed his conviction and sentence in November 2009. He was sentenced to death for the April 4, 2001, murder of 46-year-old Kathy Lynn Hutchens. He also killed his wife, Elizabeth, in 1986.

Palmer, convicted in a Burke County case, is also waiting on an appeal.

Palmer murdered his estranged wife, Brenda Palmer, 31, and stepdaughter, Christine Jenkins, 15, on Sept. 10, 1995.

Palmer was granted a second trial by the Georgia Supreme Court in November 2005. He was retried, found guilty and the death sentence was reinstated in August 2007. Now, attorneys are waiting for a direct appeal to be filed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Dieter said this is another reason carrying out the sentence can take so long.

"Then the appeals start all over again," he said. "If you get a new death sentence, your appeal of that sentence starts day one."

Perhaps the best known of the local cases is that of serial killer Rivera, who was sentenced to death Sept. 9, 2000, for killing 21-year-old Army Sgt. Marni Glista. Rivera later admitting to raping and killing three other young women.

His appellate hearings have been assigned to a judge in the middle Georgia Towaliga Judicial Circuit, Wright said. Oral testimony and arguments have already been given.

Wright said delays in carrying out death sentences include a lack of incentive for the defendants to hurry their filings. If an attorney misses a deadline, he gets an extension, she said.

"Judges are supposed to rule on all motions within a set period of time; not all do. Last-minute appeals are the norm."

Delays, spiraling costs and dwindling numbers of executions nationwide are reasons Dieter said he thinks the death penalty's days are numbered. He cites dropping numbers of executions nationwide, recent efforts by states including New York and New Jersey to outlaw the penalty, and the number of cases overturned by DNA evidence.

"So you get the sense this is an issue whose time has come for different countries in different years," he said.

On death row

ROBERT O. ARRINGTON

CONVICTED: May 6, 2004, in the April 4, 2001 murder of 46-year-old Kathy Lynn Hutchens; he also killed his wife, Elizabeth, in 1986.

SENTENCED: May 10, 2004

AFFIDAVIT BY GEORGIA SUPREME COURT: Nov. 9, 2009

STATUS: Awaiting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court for his appeal.

REINALDO RIVERA

CONVICTED: Jan. 23. 2004; he confessed to raping and killing Army Sgt. Marni Glista, 21; Tabitha Bosdell, 17; Melissa Dingess, 17; and Tiffaney Wilson, 17.

SENTENCED: Jan. 26, 2004

AFFIDAVIT BY GEORGIA SUPREME COURT: June 25, 2007

STATUS: Oral testimony and arguments given in appeal.

WILLIE W. PALMER

CONVICTED: Nov. 7, 1997, in the murder of his estranged wife, Brenda, and stepdaughter, Christine Jenkins

SENTENCED: Nov. 8, 1997

CONVICTED AGAIN: Aug. 23, 2007

RESENTENCED: Aug. 24, 2007

AFFIDAVIT BY GEORGIA SUPREME COURT: May 28, 1999

STATUS: His direct appeal has not been filed.

ERNEST U. MORRISON

PLEADED GUILTY: Oct. 30, 1987

SENTENCED: Nov. 2, 1987, for the Jan. 9, 1987, rape, robbery and murder of a family acquaintance, Mary Edna Griffin, 54

AFFIDAVIT BY GEORGIA SUPREME COURT: July 11, 2003

STATUS: Waiting on whether he will be retried or enter a plea.

-- From staff reports