A public uproar has led the Tennessee General Assembly to pass a resolution calling for the impeachment of U.S. District Court Judge John T. Nixon. Criticism of Nixon is focused on the five death-penalty cases in which he has presided.
Federal courts usually do not rule on death-penalty appeals until all opportunities for an appeal in state courts have been exhausted. In each of Nixon’s five death-penalty cases, appeals went on for many years in lower courts before they ever reached the federal level. In 1994 the General Assembly passed a bill limiting the number of post-conviction relief petitions that can be filed.
Nixon’s five death-penalty cases include:
Richard H. Austin
A Shelby County jury sentenced Austin to death in October 1977 for hiring a former prison acquaintance to kill auxiliary police officer Julian Watkins, whose undercover work had led to Austin’s arrest on gambling charges. Austin filed four separate petitions for post-conviction reliefin 1984, 1986, 1989 and 1992. It took from 18 months to two years for each petition to make its way from trial court to appeals court to the state Supreme Court. The first two petitions actually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Austin’s fourth petition for relief was ultimately denied in November 1995. Austin filed a petition for habeas corpus relief with the U.S. District Court in March 1986; Nixon was assigned the case and stayed the execution. A first hearing was scheduled for October 1995. In May 1996 Nixon reversed Austin’s conviction and sentence, based on faulty jury instructions. In May 1996 the state appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which heard arguments April 23, 1997. No decision has been announced.
Ronald E. Rickman
A Shelby Court jury sentenced Rickman to death in March 1978 for conspiring with William E. Groseclose to murder Groseclose’s wife. Rickman and Phillip M. Britt were hired to commit what turned out to be an extremely brutal murder. After both men raped Deborah Lee Groseclose, she was strangled and then stabbed. While still alive, she was stuffed into the trunk of a car where she literally cooked to death. Rickman filed two separate petitions for post-conviction relief, one in 1982, one in 1989. Both were denied; the second ended in February 1992. A petition for habeas corpus relief reached U.S. District Court in March 1985; Nixon was assigned the case and stayed the execution. After nearly five years of legal maneuvering over where the case would be heard, Nixon took back the case in January 1990. Seven months after Rickman’s last state-level appeal was denied, the state asked the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to direct Nixon to proceed. Initially, the Sixth Circuit denied the state’s request, but in November 1993 it ordered Nixon to proceed within 180 days. Nixon overturned the death sentence in April 1994, based on improper jury instructions, and the state appealed in May 1994. A separate hearing on the conviction was held in May 1994, and in September, Nixon ordered a new trial. The state appealed that order too. The cases have been combined and the case was argued at the Sixth Circuit Court on April 24, 1997. No decision has been made public.
William E. Groseclose
A Shelby County jury sentenced Groseclose to death in March 1978 for hiring Ronald E. Rickman and Phillip M. Britt to kill his wife. Groseclose filed separate petitions for post-conviction relief at the state level in 1982, 1986, 1989, and 1992. All were denied, after taking from one year to three-and-a-half years to get through the system. In February 1996, the state Supreme Court denied his fourth petition, which had been filed in September 1992. Groseclose filed a petition for habeas corpus in August 1989. Nixon was assigned the case and stayed the execution. The state twice asked Nixon to decide the case without a hearing in 1990, and Nixon denied the motion in 1994. In April 1995 a hearing was held. In July 1995 Nixon reversed Groseclose’s conviction and death sentence, citing improper jury instructions. The state appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in September 1995, and the case was heard April 24, 1997. No decision has been made public.
A Knox County jury sentenced Houston to death in November 1978 for murdering a gas station owner during an armed robbery in Knoxville. Houston filed for post-conviction relief in March 1981. The trial court denied the petition in October 1982, the appeals court denied it in 1984, the state Supreme Court denied it in 1985, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied it in June 1986. Houston filed a petition for habeas corpus in August 1986; Nixon was assigned the case and stayed the execution. In December 1993, Houston filed a motion for summary judgment, which Nixon granted in June 1994, overturning Houston’s sentence and ordering a new trial. Nixon ruled that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction and that jury instructions in both the criminal and penalty phases were improper. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in March 1995 reversed Nixon’s decision that there was insufficient evidence but affirmed his opinion that jury instructions in the criminal phase were improper. The appeals court did not rule on dealth-penalty phase instructions. In October 1995, The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the state’s appeal, sending it back to Knox County for retrial.
Robert Glen Coe
A Shelby County jury sentenced Coe to death in February 1981 for the murder of 8-year-old Cary Ann Medlin, whom he had also kidnapped and raped. Coe’s first petition for post-conviction relief was filed in 1985; it took two years to be denied at various levels. His second petition, filed in 1989, was denied by the state Supreme Court in November 1991. Coe’s initial filing for habeas corpus, in April 1987, was assigned to a federal magistrate a month later. This petition was dismissed in 1989 to allow Coe to exhaust his state appeals before proceeding in federal court. A second habeas corpus was filed in February 1992; Nixon was assigned the case and stayed the execution. After three years of legal maneuvering to allow Coe’s lawyers to amend their petition, hearings took place in April, May, and June 1996. Nixon reversed Coe’s convictions and sentences in December 1996. The state has appealed.
Photo by Elizabeth Gadbois
A gratuitous assertion, Frau Greta. Did the Fuehrer tell you that?
If you really want somebody to know something, you could just tell them.
I doubt she'd choke on yours.
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