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.

Both Jurors A and B agreed that the case against Vance was strong, and said that the deliberations on whether he should be found guilty of capital murder were nowhere near as tense as those during the sentencing phase. It took the jury barely two hours to convict and one juror said the essential decision was reached much sooner, but the group wanted to take care to be deliberate.

Both said that there were three firm holdouts against death. While Juror A did not want to talk about the race or gender of the jurors who favored life in prison without parole, Juror B said that the three were black women. We've been unable to reach other members of the jury.

Vance's defense attorney had made a point early in the trial of saying race should not be an issue in the case, though Vance is black and Pressly white. Inevitably, though, race entered spectators' speculation on jury selection and the jury's ultimate decisions. From the jurors we interviewed, however, a maternal instinct may have had more impact on the decision against death than race.

Juror A said that testimony by Vance's family and Pressly's family during the penalty phase had an effect. “I know that it was emotional to hear about his family and his upbringing, but to hear from [Pressly's] family and her friends as well. I think that though we were all affected by all of that, we were still trying to make a smart decision about what to do.” While Juror A was for the death penalty, the juror said that there was no convincing the three holdouts to change their minds “As a matter of fact,” Juror A said, “one juror at one point, he said: if we stay here until 5 o'clock tomorrow morning, are you going to change your mind? The answer was no. And so, we just realized that there was no point in us staying and deliberating it. It wasn't going to be unanimous, therefore we had to give a life sentence.”

Like Juror A, Juror B said that the case against Vance was strong. Juror B said that while everyone on the jury was fairly convinced that Vance committed capital murder by the time they reached the jury room, they wanted to take their time and go through the evidence carefully. “To me, I didn't want to jump out in 30 minutes and say: Wow, we've got it already. We took our time and really talked about it. We made sure we understood. There's 12 people who can hear 12 different versions of things, and with some of the evidence, people understood it differently.”

When it came to the penalty phase, Juror B was not swayed by the testimony put on by the defense about Vance's possible brain trauma and his childhood. “Did he have a rough life? You bet. Did he get abused? You bet,” Juror B said. “But I think, as the prosecutor said, he made a choice to go back into that house. He admitted stealing the purse and the laptop, then he decided to go back in. He made that conscious choice.”

Deliberations grew more tense when it became clear that three female jurors wouldn't sentence Vance to death. “People were just saying, he had it rough and he didn't have a chance, and his mother didn't love him,” Juror B said. “It kept coming back up: his mother didn't love him, and can you imagine what it would do to you? I remember one lady saying that. She said that's the part that really stuck with her.”

Juror B said that another juror at one point revealed that he was for death because his life had been touched by violent crime. “One of the gentlemen had an aunt or something who had gotten killed by a guy who got out of prison early who was in for life,” Juror B said. “So he was like: You are not going to talk me out of the death penalty, because if that guy would have been dead, he would have never have killed my aunt, or something to that effect.”

Juror B speculated that possibly the “motherly instincts” of the three holdouts kicked in after hearing about Vance's hard childhood. Juror B also speculated that maybe the three women had relatives whose situation reminded them of Vance. “There's poorer areas of Little Rock,” Juror B said. “If they had a cousin and he was leading a rough life, [maybe they were] thinking, ‘What if this happened to him? Where would I stand?' ”

In the end, Juror B said the personal decision to vote to give Vance the death penalty came down to Vance's own personal decision to kill. Vance's childhood, Juror B insists, didn't make Vance commit murder.  “His mother was a piece of work, in my opinion,” Juror B said. “It sounded like she rode him pretty hard. But people get rode hard all the time. I don't like people to make excuses about, they had a tough life. So do lots of people.”


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