The Arkansas Supreme Court today reversed the death sentence of Steven Wertz, convicted in 2007 of the 1986 slaying of Kathy and Terry Watts of Ash Flat. Terry Watts was then in a custody dispute with Wertz’s then-wife.
The court ordered a new sentencing because the jury had been given incorrect verdict forms.
State law requires a jury to complete three forms in addition to verdict: 1) about aggravating factors beyond reasonable doubt; 2) mitigating factors; 3) whether aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances sufficiently to impose a death penalty.
In this case, the jury was given a single set of the forms to cover the two individual guilty verdicts in the couple’s deaths and it found aggravating factors sufficient to warrant a death sentence.
The court said it found merit in Wertz’s argument that the combined forms denied him “the
individualized sentencing and protection from invalid aggravating circumstances required
under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” The majority opinion by Justice Robin Wynne said:
the submission of a single set of verdict forms makes it impossible to determine whether the jury applied the aggravator to Terry’s murder, Kathy’s murder, or both murders
The U.S. Supreme Court requires, the opinion noted, that death penalty case outcomes be “especially reliable.”
Justices Paul Danielson and Rhonda Wood dissented.