Lawyers for an Iowa woman facing a second death penalty trial for her role in the execution-style killings of five people in 1993 are planning to challenge the process used to select juries, saying it may discriminate against women and minorities.
Attorneys for Angela Johnson filed a motion Friday asking for years of data and other documents so they can analyze the racial and gender makeup of grand juries and trial juries in the federal district that covers the northern half of Iowa. They say they intend to challenge the constitutionality of the system, arguing minorities may be underrepresented by the way federal officials create the pool of potential jurors and women could be discriminated against in the selection of forepersons.
"The importance of a representative grand and trial jury to the fair administration of justice cannot be overstated, particularly in a capital case," they wrote.
Johnson is set to go on trial next year to determine whether she will be sent back to federal death row, where she was the first woman in decades after her original conviction in 2005 on four counts of capital murder. U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett overturned her death sentence last year, ruling that her lawyers failed to present evidence about her mental state that could have convinced jurors to spare her life. Bennett ordered a new trial to determine her sentence, not her guilt or innocence.
Johnson and her then-boyfriend Dustin Honken, a chemistry wiz who became one of the Midwest's first methamphetamine kingpins, were convicted of killing three adults and two children to thwart a federal investigation into his multistate drug business. The victims included two former dealers for Honken who were cooperating with investigators; one of their girlfriends, and her two children who happened to be home when Honken and Johnson came looking for them.
Prosecutors said Johnson posed as a saleswoman to get into one of their homes in 1993, days before Honken was to plead guilty to drug charges. Honken and Johnson forced one of the dealers to make a videotaped statement exonerating Honken, then took him, his girlfriend and the children to a field where they were each shot in the back of the head. Months later, Johnson lured a second dealer, who was her former boyfriend, to a secluded location where Honken shot him several times and beat him with a baseball bat.
The drug charges were dropped, and Honken remained a free man.
The victims' bodies were not found until 2000, when Johnson drew a map for a jailhouse informant that led authorities to their graves near Mason City. Iowa doesn't have the death penalty but federal prosecutors intervened, seeking capital punishment because the case involved the killing of witnesses and children. Jurors sentenced Honken, who remains on death row, and Johnson to death after separate trials.
Judge Bennett gave federal prosecutors the option to convert Johnson's sentence to life in prison in his March ruling, but they declined and sought another death penalty trial. Johnson was only one of two women on federal death row when she was removed earlier this year after Bennett found "shockingly numerous and disturbing constitutional deficiencies in the performance of Johnson's alarmingly dysfunctional trial team."
Defense attorney Marcia Morrissey of Santa Monica, Calif., said the data being sought will help determine whether disparities exist in the number of blacks, Latinos, Asians and other ethnic minorities who serve on juries compared to their population in northern Iowa. She said the district's system of using voter registration and motor vehicle ownership data tends to discriminate against those groups, who are more mobile than whites, particularly since the lists are only required to be updated every four years.
Defense lawyers also want records that would show how often women are selected to serve as forepersons and documents related to persons who were disqualified or excused from jury service in the last 18 months.
Assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams said he was in the process of reviewing the request, and would file a response. He noted that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has previously found the district's system for selecting jurors to be constitutional. In at least two cases, the appeals court has rejected claims that blacks were underrepresented in the system.
By Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press
Source: The Times Republican