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FRANKFORT - A man convicted of killing a Bardstown resident in Bullitt County 20 years ago has avoided the death penalty once again.
And Michael St. Clair will apparently get a new sentencing hearing in Bullitt County and a new trial in his kidnapping conviction in Hardin County after a ruling Thursday by the state Supreme Court.
The Commonwealth’s case against the three-time convicted 53-year-old killer took a giant step back five years Thursday with the state Supreme Court’s second reversal of a death sentence Bullitt County jurors’ gave St. Clair for killing Bardstown resident Frank Brady 20 years ago.
ee It’s the same thing that occurred five years ago, when Kentucky’s high court reversed a guilty verdict that Hardin jurors returned against St. Clair and the death sentence returned in Bullitt County’s court.
ee After his extradition to Kentucky in 1995 from Oklahoma, where he was serving two life sentences, jurors in Bullitt and Hardin courts found St. Clair guilty of Brady’s 1990 kidnapping from a Sonora Truck Stop, and his execution that happened a few hours later on a dirt road near Lebanon Junction.
eeAppealing both verdicts and sentences, St. Clair convinced Kentucky Justices to undo Bullitt jurors’ death penalty and the entire kidnapping trial in Hardin County.ee
Siding with St. Clair, the Court faulted prosecutors for having St. Clair’s wife testify against him during the Hardin trial and Bullitt sentencing phase. Forcing a spouse to testify against another is forbidden by Kentucky law.
eeee That first big upset was not the last.eeThe same prosecutors who garnered the original win against the killer - Dana Todd, David Smith (now retired) and Todd Lewis - have worked to retry St. Clair in Hardin County, and uphold the original death sentence in Bullitt County, but have failed to do so repeatedly.
ee In 2005, after a month-long resentencing phase, the prosecutors again convinced Bullitt County jurors to impose a death penalty for St. Clair’s killing of Brady.ee It’s that sentencing phase that Thursday’s opinion reverses for problems the Supreme Court Justices found problems within the trial.
eeThis time, however, the blame was placed on retired Bullitt County Circuit Judge Tom Waller. eeDespite Waller having been given by the Supreme Court specific instructions on how to instruct jurors on finding an aggravator needed to impose a death sentence, Thursday’s opinion states he failed to properly instruct the jurors.
ee The opinion reads: "The (Bullitt County) trial court's directive to follow the statutory language in instructing the jury on the applicable aggravator required to support a death sentence."ee
That failure by the court to comply with the Supreme Court's instructions thus "deprived the defendant of his right to a unanimous verdict."
eeeeIn a written statement, the Office of the Attorney General stated: “We are obviously disappointed with the Supreme Court’s ruling but appreciate the Court’s careful consideration of this case. We are reviewing today’s decision and will make a determination about our next legal steps. As a result, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further. Our thoughts are also with the Brady family and we will continue to keep them informed of any legal proceedings in this case.”
Steve Mirkin, St. Clair’s former defense attorney, said after reading Thursday’s opinion that it “puts the case in the same posture it was in 2005.”
eeThat’s when Bullitt County was gearing up for another re-sentencing of St. Clair for Brady’s murder - which he remains convicted of - and when Hardin County was preparing for another trial on the kidnapping charge, which St. Clair remains only accused of.
eeeeAn attempt to try St. Clair last year for kidnapping ended in mistrial, when the trial judge faulted prosecutors for telling jurors about the New Mexico murder of a Colorado EMT named Tim Keeling.
All evidence in previous trials points to St. Clair and his former codefendant, Dennis Reese, having kidnapped Keeling from Denver, then killed him and stole his truck in New Mexico, but neither St. Clair nor Reese was ever convicted of Keeling’s murder. ee
Judge Steve Ryan declared a mistrial as soon as prosecutor Lewis alluded to St. Clair shooting Keeling during his opening statement to jurors last year.ee
The mistrial prompted the Kentucky Attorney General to announce that future trial proceedings in Hardin County would be on hold until St. Clair’s appeal of the Bullitt County resentencing was ruled on by the Supreme Court.
eeee Preliminary proceedings for a new Hardin County trial began last month, with Judge Tom Castlen being appointed to preside over the case.eeIt was during last month’s hearing in Hardin County that Castlen said “surely we’ll finish this within three years,” regarding St. Clair’s case.
For those watching the St. Clair case, there is no reason to be sure of anything anymore.
“Nothing in the prosecution of Michael Dale St. Clair comes as a surprise anymore,” Brady’s daughter, Melanie Drury wrote in an e-mail response to The News-Enterprise on Thursday. “There's just not a playbook for this type of case. Sometimes it's just a matter of how the law has been interpreted.”
Drury and Brady’s wife, Merle, said they’ve not lost faith in prosecutors’ abilities to bring St. Clair to justice, despite their repeated mistakes and mistakes by trial courts of the past.eeee
“This is far from over, and as a family, we are prepared to do the right thing,” Drury stated. “First of all, for my father, and secondly, for any other family having to go through this nightmare.”ee
St. Clair says he’s confident that Kentucky will never carry out a death sentence on him.
eeee“My death will only be at the hands of Mother Nature, as even a blind man could see that by common (sense)…” St. Clair wrote in a letter to a reporter April 12.
eeThe 53-year-old with only a few years of grade-school education has managed to beat prosecutors at their own game on at least five separate occasions since being caught in 1991.eeHe mocks Kentucky’s system for spending a million dollars at each attempt to try him and now refers to himself as “a $5 million man” - up one million from two years ago.
“Since May 11, 1995 I’ve been housed in Kentucky at the taxpayers’ expense, hee ha” St. Clair boasts. “Now, here it is 2010, April 12, and I AM NOT DEAD.”
It’s unclear Thursday’s opinion will result in St. Clair’s transfer from Eddyville, or the cell on Death Row which he’s called home for the past 10 years. ee
A motion to get a hearing date in Bullitt County has been set for May 3.eeNo trial date has yet been set for his third trial in Hardin County.ee
St. Clair’s defense attorneys, Kentucky’s Department for Public Advocacy’s Vince Yustas, of Brandenburg, and Chris McCrary, of Elizabethtown, did not return phone calls from The News-Enterprise on Thursday.ee
A digital version of the opinion is available to the public at Kentucky Court of Justice’s Web site. A link to the opinion is as follows: opinions.kycourts.net/sc/2005-SC-000828-MR.pdf.