Pasadena Federal Court Overturns Arizona Death Penalty Conviction

Published : Sunday, April 21, 2019 | 5:10 AM

Theodore Washington (Photo: Arizona Department of Correction)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena has overturned the death sentence for Theodore Washington, the last of three defendants still on death row in a 1987 home invasion murder in Yuma, Arizona.

Washington was one of three men convicted of forcing their way into the home of Ralph and Sterleen Hill in search of drugs and cash, a Cronkite News report said. Both of the victims were shot in the head; Ralph Hill survived.

A three-judge panel at the Pasadena federal appeals court ruled 2-1 last week that Washington’s trial attorney failed to present evidence of his client’s “diffuse brain damage, and his history of substance abuse” and other problems that might have weighed against the death penalty.

“This raises a reasonable probability that, had the court been presented with the mitigation evidence the first instance, the outcome would have been different,” Appeals Judge Ronald Gould wrote in the opinion for the court, which ordered a new sentencing hearing for Washington.

Judge Consuelo Callahan dissented on the opinion, writing that there is “no good reason” to second-guess the trial judge in the case.

The case began on the night of June 8, 1987, when two men forced their way into the Hill’s home, looking for the Hills’ daughter who had left her common-law husband and returned to her parents’ house.

According to the Cronkite News narrative, the Hills were bound and forced to lie face down on their bedroom floor while the men ransacked the house, demanding drugs or money while pointing guns at the victims.

At one point, the men shot Ralph Hill in the back of the head with a shotgun, reloaded and then fatally shot Sterleen, court documents showed.

Police later arrested Fred Robinson, Susan Hill’s common-law husband. Washington and Jimmy Mathers were arrested soon thereafter. Each of the men was charged with six counts, including murder, attempted murder, assault, burglary and armed robbery, records showed.

The three were tried together in December 1987, convicted on six counts and handed the death sentenced in January 1988.

The Arizona Supreme Court vacated Mathers’ conviction for insufficient evidence, but upheld Washington and Robison’s convictions. The two appealed but had their convictions and sentences upheld by Superior Court Judge Stewart Bradshaw, the same judge who presided at their trials and sentencing.

The Pasadena appeals court said defense attorney Robert Clarke’s “representation of Washington at the penalty phase was objectively unreasonable and deficient,” and sent the case back with orders for a new sentencing hearing or, if not, for the state to change Washington’s sentence to life in prison, according to the report.

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