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Court orders hearing on death-penalty sentence for Tucson killing

A divided federal appeals court Tuesday ordered a new hearing for Arizona death-row inmate David Scott Detrich in the 1989 kidnapping and stabbing death of a Tucson woman.

After three trials, Detrich was convicted in 1997 of kidnapping and first-degree murder in the death of Elizabeth Souter, and sentenced by a judge to be executed.

Detrich’s arguments that his trial attorney was ineffective had previously been rejected by courts as being raised too late, after his post-conviction relief proceeding.

But the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that he deserves to have those challenges heard because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that changed the law after his earlier appeals were rejected.

The 11-judge court was split on the decision, however, with three judges on the opinion in which three others concurred. Five judges sharply disagreed in a dissent.

Detrich’s lawyers praised the decision as protecting an important part of defendants’ rights.

“The U.S. Supreme Court says the right to effective assistance of trial counsel is a ‘bedrock principle in our justice system,’” said lead counsel Jennifer Bedier in an emailed statement Tuesday evening.

“We are pleased to see the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals honoring that principle by giving Mr. Detrich a fair chance to litigate meritorious claims that his trial counsel was ineffective,” her statement said.

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Lawyers for the state of Arizona did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

The case began in 1989 when Detrich and a co-worker, Alan Charlton, were out drinking heavily and picked up Elizabeth Souter in Tucson, asking her where they could get cocaine. Souter bought the drugs and the three of them went to her house in Tucson, according to court documents.

After realizing there that the drugs were bad, Detrich became enraged, first demanding that Souter have sex with him and then threatening her with a knife, court records say. Detrich and Charlton then drove away with Souter in the car, and her body was found two days later in the desert, stabbed numerous times and with her throat slit.

Charlton pleaded guilty to kidnapping and, in exchange for a 10.5-year sentence, testified against Detrich. Charlton said that while he drove the car, Detrich stabbed Souter in the front passenger seat.

After three trials, Detrich was convicted by a jury in 1997 of kidnapping and first-degree murder and sentenced by a judge to be executed.

But Detrich is now claiming that the death sentence he received was partly due to what he claims was ineffective counsel at trial. If he can provide new evidence that raises doubt as to whether he or Charlton killed Souter, he might get a lighter sentence, the appeals court said.

“The question is whether, if the evidence that Charlton was the actual killer were stronger – and the evidence against Detrich therefore weaker – Detrich would nonetheless have been sentenced to death,” said the opinion, written by Judge William Fletcher.

He is allowed to raise the issue now, even though it had been barred before, because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Martinez v. Ryan. It said such claims can be raised if a defendant can show “substantial” ineffectiveness of his attorney that may have prejudiced the ultimate decision in his case.

The sharply divided appeals court sent Detrich’s case back to the district court to determine whether the ineffective attorney claim should be considered.

But the five dissenting judges argued that the circuit court could have ruled on Detrich’s claims and that sending it back to the district court creates an unnecessary delay. The dissent, by Judge Susan Graber, said the evidence against Detrich and “judicial economy … favor reaching a decision now.”

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Graber said there was “no reasonable probability” that a full consideration of Detrich’s claims would have led to a different outcome, a crucial requirement under Martinez. Rather than sending it back to the district court, Graber wrote, the appeals court should quickly deny Detrich’s claims because none of the points of ineffective counsel are substantial, making the remand to the district court “a futile gesture.”

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A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that David Scott Detrich deserves a new hearing on his challenges to his conviction for the 1989 murder of Elizabeth Souter.