Missouri jurors reject the death penalty in a federal case

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Late last month, federal prisoner Ulysses Jones, Jr. was sentenced to life in prison for the 2006 murder of another inmate at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mis-souri. It was a huge defeat for the U.S. government, which had tried for 11 years to have Jones sentenced to death.

Why it took 11 years for Jones to come to trial is just one of the many confounding aspects of the case. In the years leading up to the trial, Jones’ attorneys, from the law firm Carver, Cantin & Mynarich, had repeatedly offered to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. But prosecutors insisted on charging him with capital murder, even though the 61-year-old Jones suffers from end-stage renal disease, and has been on dialysis since 1987, and, according to attorney Thomas Carver, “would not live long enough to be executed even if he were sentenced to death.”

In addition, Jones was already serving life sentences for convictions in three prior murder cases in 1980, 1981, and 1984, and had no chance of ever being paroled.

What’s more, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, the federal government has executed only three people since 2001, the last in 2003. So why federal prosecutors were so determined to see Jones sentenced to death is puzzling.

“We tried on three different occasions [to negotiate a plea] and got nowhere,” says Carver. “From day one he would have pleaded to the crime with the understanding that he would never be released from prison, but for whatever reason the government resisted. It doesn’t make any sense.”

After finding Jones guilty of premeditated murder, and murder by a federal inmate, for the stabbing death of Timothy Baker, it took the jury only four hours of deliberation before they found they could not reach a unanimous verdict on death.

For Carver, it was a moral victory as much as a legal one. He has represented defendants in four death penalty cases, and he knew Springfield juries were tough. “There’s a long history of getting death verdicts in this district of Missouri because juries around here are pretty unforgiving,” he says. He and his co-counsel mounted a three-prong defense: that Jones’ IQ is in the 63-72 range, qualifying him as intellectually disabled; he has end-stage renal disease; and he had a horrific childhood. It was the latter argument that Carver believes swayed enough jurors to vote for a life sentence.

“We had a number of family members who told horrible stories about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father,” he says. “His father was a heroin dealer and user, and he frequently beat our client, sometimes with table legs, pointed a gun at him, and repeatedly threatened to kill him. I think the jury looked at all the mitigating factors and found the abuse he had suffered to be the most significant.”

Carver says he’s baffled why the federal government still pursues the death penalty.

“Neither myself nor my partner understands why the death penalty continues to exist. It just seems a foolish way to prosecute criminal cases and it’s certainly very expensive. You just have to question whether the state should be involved in state-sanctioned murder. Not many counties can afford to bring death penalty cases these days because they’re so expensive, and take so long, and keep prosecutors and law enforcement from focusing on other areas of concern. So there’s sort of an internal control in state courts. But the U.S. government has an unlimited budget, and I think it’s a poor use of resources. I just have a hard time believing we should just pay for formalized revenge.”

But for now, Carver, who worked on the case for seven years, says what he feels is “enormous relief. It was pretty cathartic to reach the end of the line and realize you succeeded in doing what you wanted to do for all those years. We have a really deep appreciation for what happened. It was a gift, I think. He escaped the gallows.”

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