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Friday, November 05, 2004 - Page updated at 12:05 A.M.

High court overturns killer's death sentence

By Jonathan Martin
Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Washington State Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Cecil E. Davis yesterday, finding that a juror's glimpses of the defendant's ankle shackles in the Pierce County courtroom may have prejudiced the jury.

It is the second time this year the Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence, emphasizing a trend toward more judicial oversight of capital punishment.

Since 1981, when Washington's death penalty was reinstated, 18 of the 31 death sentences imposed have been overturned or reversed by the state or federal appeals courts, according to Washington's Death Penalty Assistance Center. Seven of those reverses have happened since 2000.

Four people, meanwhile, have been executed in the past two decades.

In reviewing Davis' case, the majority in the 8-1 decision found the evidence too "overwhelming" to toss out Davis' conviction for aggravated first-degree murder in the slaying of his 65-year-old neighbor, Yoshiko Couch of Tacoma. But it also found that the image of Davis' shackled ankles may have given jurors a "negative inference as to [Davis'] character" and sent the case back to Pierce County for a new sentencing hearing.

Pierce County's chief criminal prosecutor, Jerry Costello, said his boss, Gerald Horne, would analyze the ruling before deciding to press for a new death sentence. If not, Davis will spend the rest of his life in prison.

"It didn't appear to me that there was very strong logic and reasoning behind their decision," Costello said. "It's frustrating."


Read the opinion at Personal Restraint Petition of Cecil Davis, No. 70834-7.

Davis, a career criminal, was convicted in 1998 of raping, robbing and murdering Couch, while her disabled husband slept downstairs. Couch was poisoned with a towel soaked in cleaning solvents.

DNA tests found Couch's blood on Davis' shoe, and police found cigarettes, beer and chicken apparently stolen from Couch's house in Davis' home. He tried to sell to his mother a ring similar to Couch's wedding band for $10.

A jury deliberated for less than a day before convicting him.

At the time, it was Pierce County's policy to shackle all defendants in court facing serious charges. That policy has since changed, Costello said.

Davis was well-behaved in the courtroom. His public defenders tried to hide his ankle shackles from the jury, buying him long pants and stacking boxes in front of the defense table.

But one juror, testifying last year at a special hearing for the Supreme Court appeal, said he twice saw shiny bracelets around Davis' ankles.

The glimpses of the shackles were more important during the sentencing phase than the trial, where the evidence against him was overwhelming, wrote Justice Faith Ireland for the majority. But Pierce County Superior Court Judge Frederick Fleming committed a reversible error by having Davis shackled during the sentencing phase, she wrote, where jurors consider a defendant's character and chance of rehabilitation.

"Although the opportunity to observe Davis in shackles was partial and fleeting ... the balance must tip in Davis' favor in the penalty phase," she wrote.

In the lone dissent, Justice Richard Sanders said the majority's reasoning was flawed. If the juror's glimpse of the shackles was important enough to require a new sentencing hearing, it also should be cause to hold a new trial, he wrote.

"The final measure of error in a criminal trial is whether the defendant was afforded a fair trial, not whether the appellate court agrees with the jury's verdict," he wrote.

Catherine Chaney, one of Davis' appellate attorneys, said unnecessary shackling violates a defendant's right to a fair trial.

"It conveys to a jury that he's some dangerous person who can't be controlled in the courtroom," she said. "It sends a horrible impression."

Davis' death sentence is the second the state Supreme Court has overturned this year.

The court overturned the sentence but not the conviction of Covell Thomas in a 1998 murder in Pierce County. Thomas and an accomplice were convicted of killing Thomas' boss, who owned a janitorial-services company, to rob him.

Mark Larranaga, head of the Death Penalty Assistance Center, said the rulings were in response to some U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decisions. Since 2000, the 9th Circuit Court has overturned one Washington death sentence, while the state Supreme Court has reversed six.

"I think what is happening is the state Supreme Court is doing their job with a fine-tooth comb, looking at every issue before it gets to the federal court," said Larranaga.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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