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High court considers death penalty cases

Two men who pleaded guilty to the 1989 abduction, rape and stabbing death of a Kansas City teenager urged the Missouri Supreme Court on Wednesday to overturn their death sentences because the penalties were decided by a judge instead of a jury.

The arguments were the latest in roughly 20 years of legal wrangling over whether to execute Roderick Nunley and Michael Taylor, who authorities say were on drugs when they stole a car and then abducted 15-year-old Ann Harrison who was waiting for the school bus near her home. They bound her in a car trunk after stabbing her out of fear she would identify them, and left her to bleed to death in trunk.

Nunley was scheduled to be executed in October. A federal judge stayed the execution for the state Supreme Court to consider his appeal.

At issue Wednesday was how the men were sentenced. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that juries rather than judges must decide the facts necessary to impose a death sentences. Missouri courts since then have ruled that the right to be sentenced by a jury also applies to people who were sentenced to death before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Hoping to avoid a death sentence, Nunley and Taylor pleaded guilty to killing the teenager in 1991 and opted to be sentenced by a Jackson County trial judge who had never sentenced anyone to be executed.

Nonetheless, both received the death penalty. The state Supreme Court ordered new sentencing in 1993, and Nunley and Taylor again received the death penalty from a different judge — although they requested a jury decide their sentence.

Attorneys for Nunley and Taylor argued in separate appeals Wednesday that the men’s death sentences should be converted to life prison terms. The lawyers contend that in the second round of sentencing both men were denied a jury for sentencing after they specifically requested it.

But the Missouri attorney general’s office argues that each man has earlier waived his right to jury sentencing by agreeing to plead guilty and seeking to be sentenced by a judge.

For Taylor’s appeal, the attorney general’s office pointed to a lengthy trial transcript that it says demonstrated Taylor waived his right to jury sentencing. According to a portion of the transcript included in its written argument, Taylor said he understood there would be no trial before a jury if he pleaded guilty and that a judge could give him a death sentence.

There currently are 49 people in Missouri who have been sentenced to death.

itten procedures have been upheld. Missouri has executed 67 men since the death penalty was reinstated in 1989. Only one person has been executed since October 2005, but Richard Clay’s execution is scheduled for next week.

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