DENVER – A man sentenced to death for killing a Texas couple as they camped in Oklahoma nearly 20 years ago is asking a federal appeals court for a chance to prove he should be spared the death penalty, pointing to brain damage, a troubled childhood and biblical references by prosecutors.
Edward Leon Fields’ public defender argued Wednesday at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver that a former lawyer was ineffective at the sentencing hearing.
The former attorney failed to call an expert witness who could have testified about how brain damage impaired Fields’ judgment, reasoning and decision-making when he shot and killed Charles and Shirley Chick of Hurst, Texas, in the Ouachita National Forest in 2003, public defender Hunter Labovitz said.
The lawyer also failed to introduce background on Fields’ troubled childhood and object to a prosecutor’s reference to a Bible story during closing arguments, Labovitz said.
Fields’ previous public defender, Julia O’Connell, did not have much experience with death penalty cases at the time and said in a written declaration that she was overwhelmed by the case.
Fields’ lawyers claim that jurors should have been told about his brain damage and background to help them decide whether he deserved the death penalty, noting that at least one may have voted instead for a life sentence.
They want an appeals court to order a federal court in Oklahoma to hold a new sentencing hearing or at least consider evidence about whether Fields, a former prison guard, was represented fairly.
The judges noted the former attorney portrayed the killings as a result of a medicine-induced “manic flip.” They pushed Labovitz on whether the previous lawyer may have chosen not to present evidence about Fields’ frontal lobe dysfunction or his childhood because that may have undercut that argument.
Labovitz said the brain damage does not negate the manic flip explanation. Judge Joel M. Carson said a lawyer might decide for strategic reasons to focus on part of the evidence.
Justice Department attorney Jeffrey Kahan told the three-judge panel that government experts did not find that Fields had brain damage. He said the damage found by the defense was mild, affecting his impulsivity and attention span. But despite that, Fields was able to stalk the Chicks for several days as he prepared to kill them, planning for days if not months, Kahan said.
Fields’ lawyers also are objecting to a reference to a Bible story that prosecutors mentioned in closing arguments at the sentencing hearing. In the Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar is found wanting and condemned to death. The prosecutor had argued that Fields also should be “weighed in the balance” and “found wanting.”
They say courts have found that biblical references during sentencing are inappropriate because they can give the impression that the death penalty is mandatory and make jurors feel like they do not have to decide the issue themselves.
However, unlike in other cases, the prosecutor did not specifically mention the Bible or God or any biblical figure by name.