A judge removed one of the two women on federal death row Friday, saying lawyers for the Iowa woman convicted in the 1993 execution-style murders of five people failed to present evidence about her troubled mental state that could have spared her from capital punishment.
In a 448-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett threw out Angela Johnson's death sentence, saying her defense lawyers were "alarmingly dysfunctional" during the 2005 trial that made her the first woman to be sentenced to death in the federal system since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the punishment in 1976.
Attorney General Eric Holder and aides must determine within 60 days whether to appeal or continue seeking the death penalty for the 48-year-old mother of two, said assistant U.S. Attorney C.J. Williams, who prosecuted the case. If they do not appeal, there will be a trial to determine whether Johnson will be sentenced to death. In that trial, her lawyers would be allowed to present evidence about her mental health that was omitted in 2005. If they decline to seek the death penalty, Bennett could sentence Johnson to life in prison without parole.
Bennett's ruling doesn't throw out her convictions _ he said evidence of her guilt was overwhelming. Johnson and boyfriend Dustin Honken committed the murders to thwart a federal investigation that threatened to end Honken's reign as one of the Midwest's largest methamphetamine kingpins, and buried the bodies to cover them up.
After separate trials, jurors sentenced Honken to death for the two children's murders while Johnson was sentenced to death on four counts. Both were to die by lethal injection.
The bodies of the victims _ drug dealers-turned-government witnesses Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson; Nicholson's girlfriend, Lori Duncan; and Duncan's daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6 _ were found in shallow graves near Mason City in 2000. They were discovered after Johnson, serving time on drug charges, sketched out a locator map to a jailhouse informant.
Prosecutors said Johnson posed as a saleswoman to gain access to Duncan's home in 1993, days before Honken was to plead guilty to drug charges. Honken and Johnson forced Nicholson to make a videotaped statement exonerating Honken. Afterward, they took him, Duncan and her children to a field and shot all of them in the back of the head at close range.
A month later, Johnson lured DeGeus, a former boyfriend, to a secluded location where Honken shot him several times and beat him with a baseball bat.
Bennett said that he understands his ruling will upset victims' families, but Johnson's defense was so riddled with missteps that her rights were violated.
"I believe that I have done my duty, in light of what is required by the Constitution _ the foundational document of our Nation's enduring freedoms, including the right not to be put to death when trial counsel's performance was so grossly constitutionally inadequate," he wrote.
During the penalty phase of Johnson's trial, Bennett said defense lawyers failed to present expert testimony about her mental health at the time of the murders that could have helped explain her involvement to jurors. He said they should have presented evidence about the impact of serious brain impairments, personality disorders and her prior methamphetamine use.
Bennett said defense lawyers also failed to present evidence that could have undercut the prosecution's claim that she participated in DeGeus' killing out of revenge, because of their prior relationship's abusive nature. He said they should have had experts argue she was suffering from battered woman's syndrome and wouldn't have wanted him dead.
At trial, her attorneys argued the government's case was built entirely on circumstantial evidence and that Johnson was ignorant of Honken's intent to kill. They urged jurors to sentence her to life in prison, not death.
Iowa does not have the death penalty, and Bennett said few lawyers in the state had expertise in capital punishment. He said he tried to assemble "dream team" of lawyers for Johnson _ including Alfred Willett, of Cedar Rapids; Patrick Berrigan of Kansas City, Mo.; and Dean Stowers of Des Moines _ but they performed poorly.
Willett and Berrigan didn't return messages Friday. Stowers agreed the defense team was dysfunctional.
"I'm happy she's going to get a new shot at things because she deserves it," he said.
Bennett, appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, has acknowledged his personal opposition to the death penalty. In a 2006 speech about the two capital murder cases, he said he set aside his personal beliefs in the interest of fairness. But he added he had "grave concerns" the death penalty could be applied unfairly.
Johnson is at a medical center for female inmates in Fort Worth, Texas, while Honken is in prison in Terre Haute, Ind.