Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court's denial of a capital defendants petition for post-conviction relief under Section 2254 in Slagle v. Bagley. As we've come to expect on the Sixth, the panel was divided. Judge John Rogers wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Judge Danny Boggs. Judge Karen Moore dissented.
Defendant Billy Slagle was convicted of the aggravated murder of Mari Anne Pope.
Slagle broke into his neighbor Pope's house on August 13, 1987, because he wanted to steal something for the following day's drinking. Pope was babysitting two neighborhood children. Ultimately, Slagle went into Pope's bedroom and, after she woke up, stabbed her seventeen times in her chest with her sewing scissors. The two children escaped, called for help, and identified Slagle. The police found Slagle at the scene holding the bloody scissors, and Slagle later described his actions that night indetail. Although Slagle admitted at trial that he killed Pope, he argued that, due to his voluntary intoxication from alcohol and marijuana, he did not have the requisite intent for aggravated murder. The jury, nevertheless, sentenced him to death for aggravated murder.The primary issue in the case was whether Billy Slagle's death sentence should be overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. In particular, Slagle argued, the prosecutor's repeated improper statements prevented him from receiving a fair trial. According to the majority opinion, the issue was not whether the prosecutor made improper statements, but whether the statements "so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process." A prosecutor's improper actions should not void an otherwise valid verdict if the trial was fair despite the prosecutor's misconduct. This is particularly so where the evidence of the defendant's guilt is sufficiently strong that the prosecutor's actions are unlikely to have affected the outcome. Judge Moore, on the other hand, thought the prosecutor's improper statements were sufficiently pervasive to render the trial fundamentally unfair, despite the strength of the evidence against Slagle.