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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Bell Prosecutor is Admonished

Commonwealth’s attorney had sent letter to Bell jury

Note: This is a local story that normally wouldn't appear on this political site. But the Bell case has over the past year become inextricably linked to the state's political picture. See a note at the bottom of this post for more details.

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

WINCHESTER — Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Iden has been admonished for sending a letter to members of the jury that sentenced convicted murderer Edward Bell to death in 2001.

Meanwhile, the judge handling what is Bell’s last major appeal before the death chamber awarded his legal team the services of an investigator to help prove that his first legal team didn’t do a good enough job.

Bell was sentenced to death in 2001 for the 1999 murder of Winchester police Sgt. Ricky Timbrook. Since then, Bell has exhausted and lost all of his state appeals, along with all but one portion of his last major federal appeal — that his trial lawyers were ineffective during his sentencing.

Iden, who was elected after the Bell verdicts, received the mildest form of legal sanction for a letter sent to jurors which cautioned them to check the credentials of anyone wanting to interview them, and then call his office.

Bell’s lawyers filed a complaint with the Virginia State Bar regarding the letter in 2004, which resulted in Monday’s hearing.

“As a result of this letter, most jurors refused to cooperate with Bell’s state” appellate lawyers, his current team said in a February federal court filing.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine Baldwin — who gave Iden the very letter he sent to jurors — fired back in the commonwealth’s re-sponse at the time that Bell’s claim was “slanderous.”

“He contends, without any support whatsoever, that a letter … [Iden] sent to Bell’s jurors after direct appeal to protect them from shady practices death penalty opponents routinely engage in, caused jurors not to talk,” she wrote. The claim is just a tactic “taught in capital murder seminars” designed to sway a judge toward a new trial or sentencing.

Iden said he was surprised by the ruling, considering the letter was given to him by the office of then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. Still, he hasn’t made a decision on appealing the admonishment.

“I’m going to wait on the written opinion” before making a decision on whether or not to appeal, he said.

The office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell declined to comment. Efforts to reach members of Bell’s legal team were unsuccessful on Tuesday.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones allowed Bell’s team some help in proving his first lawyers weren’t up to snuff at sentencing in a ruling released Tuesday afternoon.

“Bell’s trial court appointed a mitigation investigator … in February of 2000. [The investigator] interviewed Bell and concluded that Bell had problems with his cognitive abilities,” Jones wrote. “She alerted Bell’s trial counsel to these findings and requested the contact information for Bell’s family so that she could perform her investigation, but trial counsel did not respond and [the investigator] was thus unable to continue her services.”

“If Bell succeeds in proving that his trial counsel’s failure to pursue this investigation was deficient, the evidence uncovered by a Virginia fact investigator employed by Bell’s current habeas counsel would be relevant” to whether or not the condemned gets another sentencing.

The lawyers had requested $92,500 to pay for a number of other experts, including some to look at how Bell’s mental state might have been presented as a reason not to sentence him to death. But Jones turned those away.

Both sides will argue their case before Jones in a two-day hearing in Harrisonburg set for July.

End Note: Bell's case came to statewide prominence when then-gubernatorial candidate Kilgore ran a much-publicized television ad featuring Sgt. Timbrook's widow, Kelly, saying she didn't trust then-Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to carry out Bell's death sentence.

Kaine responded by saying he opposed the death penalty, but would uphold the law. Should Bell's current appeal fail, Kaine's power to grant clemency would be one of three possible obstacles remaining between the condemned and the death chamber.

The commonwealth is now being represented by the office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell.