LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court today reinstated the death sentence of a condemned Kentucky inmate who was on track to be freed after awaiting execution for three decades.
The high court overturned a U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that had granted a new trial to 63-year-old David Eugene Matthews. That trial would have been on reduced charges and likely would have led to Matthews release even if he was convicted, because of the length of time he's already served.
Matthews was sentenced to death in 1982 for the slaying of his estranged wife and mother-in-law in Louisville.
The 6th Circuit decision in June 2011 gave prosecutors 180 days to retry Matthews on burglary charges, but not murder. If that decision had stood, Matthews would have been poised to leave the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville for the first time in 30 years. Prosecutors have said that all the available burglary sentences would have resulted in Matthews' release from prison.
The appeals court in Cincinnati ruled that Matthews couldn't face a jury again in the slaying of his estranged wife, Mary "Marlene" Matthews, and mother-in-law, Magdalene Cruse, in Louisville on June 29, 1981, because of the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy.
The panel concluded that a judge misinterpreted Kentucky's law on extreme emotional disturbance and ordered Matthews retried or released. The justices found fault with that reasoning on Monday, saying the judges improperly used the case "as a vehicle to second-guess the reasonable decisions of the state courts."
Kentucky's law at the time Matthews went to trial required prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Matthews did not suffer from extreme emotional disturbance if the defendant produced sufficient evidence of the disorder. Such a showing meant the defendant could be found guilty of first-degree manslaughter, not murder, unless prosecutors rebutted the claim.
Matthews is Kentucky's second-longest serving death row inmate. The state is currently in the process of altering its execution method to comply with a state judge's order.
Kentucky has executed three men since 1976. The last person executed was Marco Allen Chapman by lethal injection in November 2008. The state currently has 35 people on death row.