Judge Throws Out Brothers' Murder Convictions
The boys, Alex King, 13, and Derek King, 14, confessed to the crime within hours of their arrest in November 2001, but later blamed a family friend with whom Alex said he had had sex. Prosecutors first tried the friend, Ricky Chavis, based on the boys' accusations, and then tried the boys, based on their confession. Mr. Chavis's acquittal was not disclosed until the boy's verdict was read.
In ruling today on a defense motion for a retrial, the judge for both trials, Frank Bell of Escambia County Circuit Court in Pensacola, held that the boys' rights were violated because the prosecution presented two theories about the crime, with no clear indication of who it believed committed the killing.
The judge ordered the prosecution and defense to try to resolve the case in mediation, saying he would order a new trial only if they could not do so and prosecutors did not win an appeal.
"There's no question in my mind, based upon legal arguments and trial transcripts, that Derek and Alex King did not receive due process," Judge Bell said.
Legal experts said that while they agreed with the judge's ruling, holding out the prospect of a new trial seemed questionable. If trying them in the murder was unconstitutional, retrying them would not seem to solve the problem, they said.
The experts said, though, that in ordering mediation and suggesting an appeal, the judge was probably signaling that a successful retrial was unlikely.
In one of the most publicized cases ever in Pensacola, the brothers were convicted on Sept. 6 of second-degree murder and faced sentences of 22 years to life in prison for the November 2001 killing of Terry King, who was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat as he slept in a recliner in their living room.
The boys, who were tried as adults, were also convicted of setting the house on fire to cover up their actions. They faced sentences of 30 years in prison for arson.
The age of the boys and the nature of the crime brought national attention from the beginning. But the prosecutors' approach in the case greatly increased the attention and brought criticism from legal experts, who said it was rare to conduct separate trials for a crime that only one defendant or set of defendants could have committed.
David Rimmer, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case, said he was disappointed by the ruling but would proceed with the mediation before deciding whether to appeal. Mr. Rimmer said he believed that the boys received a fair trial but he would not comment further.
Mr. Rimmer said at the time of the trial that his office brought both cases because the boys confessed to the crime before recanting to a grand jury and saying they were covering up for Mr. Chavis. Mr. Rimmer said it was up to the juries to decide which version of the events was accurate.
"I felt there was enough circumstantial evidence that he motivated and influenced them," Mr. Rimmer said of Mr. Chavis at the time. "The boys said he was the perpetrator, but the jury rejected their testimony. They didn't believe it."
Mr. Chavis will stand trial in February on charges of lewd and lascivious acts upon a minor, to which he has pleaded not guilty.
Legal experts have said since the start of the cases that the state attorney's office was on shaky ground with its duel prosecution strategy.
"One wonders how things got this far to begin with," said Yale Kamisar, a criminal law professor at the University of Michigan. "The defense has an argument when the prosecution can't make up its mind as to who committed the crime."
Mr. Kamisar said it was in the best interest of all the parties in the case to resolve the matter.