Originally created 05/19/00

Jurors deadlock on sentence



One juror's vote spared William Kenny Stephens from a third death sentence Thursday.

The Richmond County Superior Court jurors who were selected Monday to determine Mr. Stephens' punishment - life in prison or death - for the murder of a police officer 21 years ago deadlocked 11-1 in favor of imposing the death sentence.

"We are out of things to deliberate and are not able to reach a unanimous verdict," the final note from jurors read. Minutes before 5 p.m., Judge Albert M. Pickett declared a mistrial.

"Mr. Stephens, please stand up," the judge asked. Because the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on punishment, the law required Judge Pickett to sentence Mr. Stephens to life in prison.

It is a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

On the afternoon of Jan. 24, 1979, Mr. Stephens gunned down Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Larry D. Stevens Sr., a 38-year-old husband and father of three young sons.

Mr. Stephens, now 52, was first convicted and sentenced to death in 1980. His conviction was upheld, but nine years later the death sentence was vacated and a new sentencing trial was ordered. A jury sentenced Mr. Stephens to death again in 1989, but that sentence was vacated in December 1998.

This week, for the third time, Investigator Stevens' widow and his oldest son, Larry D. Stevens Jr., watched their personal tragedy unfold before yet another group of strangers. Bertha Stevens once again had to take the witness stand to identify the clothes her husband had worn the day he was shot to death by a convicted felon whom the detective suspected of stealing guns.

"I didn't really come in today with any high expectations after all this time," said Mr. Stevens, who watched the first trial when he was just a teen-ager. "I thought I would be all right with whatever the jury decided so long as we could put some closure on it."

But still, it seems sad that two other juries, 24 people, and 11 more in this jury could vote for a death sentence and one person could prevent that punishment, Mr. Stevens said.

District Attorney Danny Craig shared that frustration. Requiring a unanimous jury vote in order to impose a death sentence in Georgia gives a single juror absolute veto power, he said.

"I'm just disappointed that people will forget that 11 people voted for the death penalty. I worry that others will think Richmond County residents are not willing to back up police officers when they put their lives on the line. Unfortunately, that message comes from one juror, not 12," Mr. Craig said.

The defense attorney team of Peter Johnson and Paul David and Mr. Stephens' family was pleased that at least one juror believed as they did - that Mr. Stephens did not deserve death. Mr. Johnson, who was junior counsel on Mr. Stephens' 1989 sentencing and inherited the lead counsel role this time, was drained at the end of the trial and declined offers to go out for a celebration.

"You know what I want to do? I want to go get my little girl. That's what I really want to do," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. David realized that today is a Friday, the day set aside in Superior Court for sentencing hearings. Both he and Mr. Johnson have clients scheduled for hearings.

As the attorneys stood near the elevators on the second floor of the municipal building, both looked back toward the courtroom where Mrs. Stevens and her son stood. Both said they hoped the verdict brings some closure for the investigator's family.

The Stevens family does, too.

"Now, since I know he has life in prison, we can get on with our lives. It just keeps you upset - you can't get it out of your mind," Mrs. Stevens said.

It will take some time to get past this month's trial, she said.

"I just hope no other family of a police officer has to go through this again," Mr. Stevens said.

"This case points out everything that is wrong with the extensive appeal process in death penalty cases," Mr. Craig said. "Investigator Stevens' family has been victimized not only by Mr. Stephens but by a 20-year search for justice. I think that's asking far too much of a family and, quite frankly, I think that's asking too much of a community."

Mr. Stephens' family also has waited 20 years, hoping a jury would spare him from the electric chair.

"I'm so glad it's over with," said his mother, Carrie Stephens. "I'd like to thank the jury."

The defendant wants to appeal.

"Life plus 60?" he asked Judge Pickett, leaning forward, arms crossed in front of his body.

In 1980, in addition to the death sentence for murder, Mr. Stephens received 60 years for three counts of aggravated assault - assaults committed during a shootout with three police officers after the murder.

"Are you satisfied with your attorneys now?" Judge Pickett asked Mr. Stephens. The question - which is required at every stage of the pretrial and trial process in death penalty cases to help ensure competent legal counsel for those who might be sentenced to death - was rhetorical because Judge Pickett already had imposed the life sentence.

"No, sir," Mr. Stephens responded. A guffaw escaped from his attorney, Mr. Johnson.

"He's been complaining all day," Mr. Johnson said.

Mrs. Stevens and her son were the last to leave the floor where courtrooms are located. They said they are just glad they will not have to come back again.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or shodson@augustachronicle.com.