The Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City will determine whether a man was wrongly given capital punishment and whether the state’s death penalty law is unconstitutional.
Former U.S. Army soldier and Dent County Sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Rice was convicted of murdering the mother of his child and her boyfriend in December 2011. Rice was fired from his position as a deputy in 2009 after he and the mother, Annette Durham, who had been incarcerated several times, had an affair.
Durham gave birth to Rice’s child while in prison and he took custody of the child during her incarceration. Upon her release from prison, Durham had supervised visits with the child. According to court documents, during her first unsupervised visit, she called up Rice and told him that she would not bring the child home that night as promised.
Rice, who had been honorably discharged from the Army and classified as a disabled veteran after suffering from a knee injury and being treated for his first episode of major depressive disorder, sank further into depression after losing his job at the sheriff’s department. By the time of the shooting incident, he’d also discovered that he had a pituitary gland tumor, which caused a thyroid abnormality, affecting some of his hormone levels, which further worsened his depression.
Court documents filed by his attorney before the Supreme Court, Assistant State Public Defender Craig Johnston, noted Rice was taking 17 different medications and had been diagnosed with 12 various medical and psychiatric conditions by the day of the shooting, December 11, 2011.
After hearing Durham tell him she would not be returning the child, Rice confronted Durham and her boyfriend, Steven Strotkamp, at their residence in Dent County. In an altercation with both of them after breaking down the front door, he shot and killed Durham outside the home and Strotkamp inside. An autopsy revealed that Durham died from four gunshot wounds while Strotkamp was killed by two gunshot wounds.
After the incident, Rice swapped his car for his wife’s car and headed to the V.A. hospital in Columbia. His wife informed police of his intention during a phone conversation, and a high-speed chase ensued that covered over 90 miles and ended in Jefferson City. After spike strips flattened his vehicle’s tires, Rice traveled through two intersections and ended up in the parking lot of the Capital Plaza Hotel.
As Rice drove underneath the awning of the front of the hotel, he jumped out of the moving car, leaving the car to roll through the parking lot with some officers chasing it. From behind a wall inside the hotel, he exchanged gunfire with an officer in pursuit. The hotel was particularly busy because the Jefferson City Medical Group was hosting a Christmas party at the hotel and there was a hockey tournament in town. An officer who was working an off-duty job at the hotel got behind Rice and shot him. He sustained bullet wounds to his hand, arm, and lower back and was taken into custody.
Rice was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, and the state also filed notice it was seeking the death penalty. It offered aggravating circumstances, including that the murders were committed while Rice was engaged in the commission or attempted commission of another unlawful homicide, and that the murders were “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman in that they involved torture or depravity of mind.”
A trial court sentenced Rice to death after the jury became deadlocked in St. Charles County where his case was moved on a change of venue. The jury returned a verdict of life imprisonment without parole for second-degree murder in the death of Strotkamp but was hung over the first-degree murder count in the death of Durham. Eleven jury members favored giving him an additional life in prison sentence while one favored the death penalty.
Rice’s appeal in the Supreme Court argues seven points, including that evidence should have been suppressed and a mistrial should have been granted. It further asserts that Missouri’s law requiring a judge to make independent factual findings supporting a death sentence when a jury is deadlocked is unconstitutional.
In its first count, Rice’s appeal argues he was denied a fair trial and a right to be free from self-incrimination because the prosecutor for the state commented upon failure to testify during the trial.
In addition, the appeal claims he should have been granted a mistrial because the prosecution violated a Supreme Court ruling that a defendant’s silence in response to a Miranda warning can’t be used against him.
It also claims Rice’s statement describing the incident in which he killed Durham and Strotkamp during interrogation at a hospital should have been excluded because police continued to question him after he said he didn’t want to answer questions.
His defense further claims the jury should have been given the option of considering manslaughter charges because there was evidence that Marvin caused Strotkamp’s death under the influence of sudden passion given his mental state.
Finally, the appeal claims the Missouri death penalty arrangement is unconstitutional because it permits the trial court to impose a death sentence when the jury has failed to unanimously agree it is warranted, and it allows only two people, in this case, the judge and one juror, to decide that a defendant should receive death in a jury-tried case.
The appeal also contends Missouri’s death penalty law violates a core Supreme Court holding – for states to limit capital punishment to a ‘narrow category’ of the most egregious murderers for whom the death penalty is reserved. It says a Missouri prosecutor is currently free to pursue the death penalty in virtually any murder case as a result of the failure.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, the ACLU Foundation Capital Punishment Project and Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty filed a brief as friends of the Court. They argue Missouri’s capital sentencing statute is unconstitutional because it allows a judge, rather than the jury, to make factual findings supporting a death sentence and then sentence the defendant to death when the jury is unable to agree unanimously on a punishment.
Missouri and Indiana are the only states that legislatively authorize a judge to impose a death sentence when a jury is deadlocked.
The appeal from Rice is asking for a new trial over his second-degree murder charge of Strotkamp and a life without parole sentence for his first-degree murder conviction of Durham. In court documents submitted by Assistant Attorney General Nathan Aquino, the state argues against all seven points raised in Rice’s appeal to the Supreme Court.
The high bench will hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday morning. Rice is currently incarcerated at the Potosi Correctional Center where all inmates serving a death sentence are housed.
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