Havre Daily News
CHINOOK - The sentencing of convicted killer Laurence Dean Jackson Jr. is set to begin in earnest today, after state District Judge John McKeon ruled on several motions Monday.
McKeon denied a defense motion that would have taken the death penalty out of the picture for Jackson, 28, whom a Missoula jury found guilty last year of fatally shooting a Blaine County sheriff's deputy and wounding another in a field near Harlem in May 2003 after the two deputies responded to a domestic dispute.
Prosecutors will begin today's court session with opening arguments in Chinook.
McKeon granted a defense motion to hold separate sentencing hearings on Jackson's two convictions after he agreed with Helena defense attorney Ed Sheehy's interpretation of state statute. He will first hear arguments on the charge of deliberate homicide.
Prosecutors will provide evidence detailing Jackson's criminal history and the events of May 29, 2003. The jury found that Jackson shot and killed deputy Josh Rutherford with Rutherford's .40-caliber Glock pistol before firing on deputy Loren Janis, who was struck in the arm.
Jackson faces life without parole or the death penalty for the deliberate homicide conviction. Jackson also faces a maximum of life in prison for an attempted deliberate homicide charge stemming from the shooting of Janis.
Following the state's presentation, defense attorneys will use expert witnesses and research to show the effect of a number of factors, including prenatal exposure to alcohol, alcoholism as a young adult and a history of head injuries, have had on Jackson's life.
The state will then have the opportunity to rebut the defense's evidence. The hearing is scheduled to last the rest of the week.
Jackson wore jeans, a pullover and leg shackles to the hearing. More than a half-dozen local law enforcement officers stood guard throughout the day, and 20 or so courtroom visitors were required to go through a security check.
The bulk of Monday's court proceedings dealt with the defense attorneys' motion to strike the death penalty from the hearing. Sheehy, who has a background in capital punishment cases, and Havre lawyer Robert Peterson argued that prosecutors' push for the death penalty was “retaliatory.”
Jackson's lawyers said the state was seeking the death penalty as retribution because the defense rejected two plea offers made before the trial began.
Blaine County Attorney Yvonne Laird and assistant attorney general Carlo Canty successfully argued that the state acted properly when it attempted to negotiate a plea bargain that would have spared Jackson's life. Roughly four hours after the hearing began, McKeon ruled against the defense.
“There is no credible evidence of coercion, vindictiveness or retaliatory behavior by the state,” he said.
Prosecutors gave fair and timely notice of their intent to seek the death penalty and never wavered from that assertion, McKeon added.
The two sides disagreed on what plea offers were made by the prosecution, prompting the judge to hold a fact-finding hearing before he made his ruling.
In December 2003, the state offered Jackson life imprisonment without parole in exchange for guilty pleas to the charges. The defense rejected the offer a month later, both sides agreed.
Weeks before the trial, Sheehy said, Canty offered a similar bargain in exchange for no-contest pleas from Jackson. Sheehy said he made a counteroffer during the same meeting to change both counts to assault on a peace officer.
Canty said he could not recall offering a plea bargain for a no-contest plea or the defense's counteroffer. He called the counteroffer “comical.”
During the hearing, Peterson quizzed his co-counsel on the stand about the particulars of the initial plea offer and the disputed conversation between Sheehy and Canty. Canty followed by cross-examining Sheehy about their talk.
Sheehy said he rejected the no-contest plea offer because he was unsure if McKeon would accept the agreement.
Sheehy and Peterson also argued that Jackson could not provide “a factual basis” for pleading guilty because Jackson was in an alcoholic blackout the night of the shooting. A state expert testified during the trial that Jackson may have no memory of the incident, an analysis prosecutors disputed.
When Jackson rejected the initial plea offer, his lawyers at the time cited two reasons - a pending legal challenge to the state's capital punishment law and the fact that a defense expert had not yet analyzed all of the evidence in the case.
Sheehy told McKeon they didn't tell prosecutors their third reason - that Jackson couldn't remember what happened that night. Sheehy said he did not reveal the information at the time because it would have violated the attorney-client privilege.