Life and death 

Not many were shocked when Curtis Lavelle Vance was found guilty last week of capital murder, rape, residential burglary and theft of property in the October 2008 beating death of KATV anchor Anne Pressly.

In addition to presenting testimony about Pressly's severe injuries, prosecutors had been hammering home hard evidence for over a week by then: a hair found at the scene that was Vance's to the certainty of one in quintillions; DNA evidence recovered from Pressly's body that showed her rape had to have been committed by someone in Vance's paternal line; Vance's own videotaped confession, in which he admitted he'd committed “a sick crime” by bludgeoning Pressly to death.

When the jury came back with Vance's sentence, however, it was a different story. Though the spectators in the gallery followed Judge Chris Piazza's instructions and remained, for the most part, silent when the sentence of life in prison without parole was read, it was surely a shock to many. After all, the judge had just read a form signed by jurors saying that they had unanimously agreed that the prosecution's aggravating factors — their case that the murder rose to the level of justifying the death penalty because of its cruelty and because he had committed a prior felony of force or violence in raping a teacher in Marianna in 2008  — outweighed the mitigating factors put on by the defense. The defense spent a day and a half during the penalty phase charting Vance's life from the cradle to the courtroom, including gripping testimony on Vance's abused childhood at the hands of his crack-addicted mother and a tearful plea from his wife that the jury spare her three children's father.

The idea that the prosecution could succeed in making the case for death to a jury that would then refuse to impose that sentence was confusing enough that after the trial, I tracked down Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley and double checked that was true before filing a report with the Arkansas Times blog. Yes, he said, that was the jury's province.

The day after the Vance verdict, the Times spoke with Jegley again. Asked how he felt about the verdict, Jegley said that he respects the jury's decision, and was “just fine” with it because Pressly's family and friends seem satisfied with the outcome.

“The main thing I care about is how the family and friends feel, and they're good,” Jegley said. “I talked to Guy and Patti [Cannady, Anne Pressly's stepfather and mother] this morning.”

Jegley understands the confusion over the idea that a jury could find that a crime justified death and yet not be able to impose death. He said that Vance “left the skin of his teeth on the courtroom floor” in avoiding death, but reminded that the death sentence is not automatic. In order to impose the death penalty, each and every juror must agree in writing that the crime warrants death. Some jury members just can't do that, Jegley said. 

“Just because you find that the aggravators outweigh the mitigators, you're still not there,” he said. “You've still got to pull the trigger.”

In the Vance trial, the jury was made up of six white men, four black women, and two white women. Since the verdict, the Arkansas Times has talked to two jurors in the case, who spoke on the condition that identifying information be withheld. We'll call them Jurors A and B.



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