Update: Judge overturns death sentence in double murder case of Johnnie A. Worsley

Citing ineffective assistance of counsel, Judge John Allen orders new penalty phase

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 14, 2012 

A Columbus man condemned to death for slaughtering his wife and stepdaughter deserves a new penalty phase trial because his attorneys failed to offer sufficient mitigating evidence to a jury deciding his fate more than 13 years ago, a Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday.

The ruling, which seemed to shock prosecutors, granted new judicial life to Johnnie A. Worsley, a 51-year-old who admitted going “berserk” one night in March 1995. Worsley, who has suffered from mental illness but was deemed fit to stand trial, stabbed to death 17-year-old Yameika Bell before bludgeoning Flora J. Worsley with a baseball bat, an episode of violence prosecutors said defied comprehension.

Worsley pleaded guilty but mentally ill to the double murder and has never disputed his guilt. His 1998 conviction was to be automatically appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, but didn’t make it past the initial appellate stage in Superior Court.

Worsley’s motion for new trial was filed shortly after his conviction but — like two other local death row cases that seemed forgotten for years — didn’t resurface until recently, an inordinate delay that officials have struggled to explain. The jurist who has sought to revive those cases, Chief Superior Court Judge John D. Allen, weighed in on the merits of Worsley’s appeal Wednesday, delivering prosecutors an unexpected setback.

“This was a heinous crime from the outset,” Allen said at Wednesday’s hearing, the last of three since December on the motion for new trial. “There’s no question in my mind that there was sufficient basis for finding the death sentence, but we’ll never know because sufficient mitigation evidence wasn’t presented.”

Allen ruled Worsley’s trial attorneys fell “woefully short” of the effective assistance of counsel standard, essentially depriving him of his constitutional rights.

Defense attorneys interviewed some of Worsley’s family members as potential witnesses, but they said they decided not to call them to the stand for fear their testimony might backfire and inflame the jury.

“Even if they had something to say, I didn’t think they’d be able to articulate it very well,” said public defender Bob Wadkins, who was grilled about his representation of Worsley. “I thought they had agendas that were not akin to ours.”

Only one witness, a county jailer, testified on Worsley’s behalf in mitigation.

Worsley’s attorneys had several avenues to rebut the state’s penalty phase witnesses — family members of the victims who asked for “the ultimate sentence” — but failed to do so, said Bill Mason, an appellate attorney who argued Worsley didn’t receive a fair trial because jurors weren’t apprised of his earlier hardships.

Mason recently returned from interviewing witnesses in North Carolina, a trek Worsley’s trial attorneys did not make before the 1998 trial.

“The man had no criminal history. He was an honorably discharged United States veteran. He had issues growing up,” Mason said. “The jury was informed of none of those in an effective manner. Trial counsel met with the witnesses in the hallway before they were to testify — that is not adequate preparation.”

Prosecutors argued that Worsley’s lawyers did all they could to prepare for trial. Assistant District Attorney David R. Helmick said Mason didn’t meet his burden of proof on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Helmick vowed to appeal Allen’s ruling but declined further comment on the case Wednesday. Mason, however, said he doesn’t think prosecutors have a right to appeal Allen’s ruling.

“It’s clearly the right decision,” Mason said. “This judge had the courage to do it now instead of waiting for another judge to do it down the line. So hopefully we can bring this case to a resolution without the victim’s family or the defendant’s waiting any longer.”

Mason won’t represent Worsley at the new penalty phase trial, but he said he hopes prosecutors will accede to a sentence of life without parole in the case given Worsley’s failing medical condition.

“He’s on dialysis three times a week,” Mason said. “If he lives long enough to have a new penalty phase, hopefully they can work it out. He offered to plead to life without parole before the start of the trial, and I’m hoping that’s what they’d agree to now.”

The charges stem from a double murder on March 7, 1995, in Columbus. Shortly after midnight, Worsley took a butcher knife into Bell’s bedroom and stabbed her repeatedly.

“There was foam on her neck, which was very significant because it shows she was alive and breathing when she sustained the neck injuries when the defendant cut her throat and stabbed her,” Helmick said.

Worsley then drove to East Highlands to buy crack before he returned home and lay in wait behind a bedroom door for his wife to return from work. He attacked her, Helmick said, stabbing her “twice in the left side in addition to literally bashing her head in” with the bat.

“This is exactly what the death penalty is for,” Helmick said.

Worsley’s defense attorneys had argued he should be spared because he suffered from mental illness and had subaverage intelligence, citing testimony from a neuropsychologist who testified in the guilt-innocence phase about Worsley’s early childhood depression and recurring drug and alcohol problems. Helmick pointed to the doctor’s testimony as mitigating evidence in and of itself, suggesting it would have been redundant for Wadkins to re-call the man in the penalty phase.

As for the family members, Helmick said Worsley had a brother in jail for murder in North Carolina, and his defense attorney didn’t want “the jury to believe that this defendant came from a family of murderers.”

But Mason also took exception with Wadkins’ failure to introduce documentation of Worsley’s service in the Army.

“This is Fort Benning, Georgia. This is Columbus, Georgia,” Mason said. “All he had to do was connect with one juror and say, ‘Hey this guy served his country, so let’s send him to jail for the rest of his life and not kill him.”

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