Defense lawyers for child killer Beau Maestas asked the Nevada Supreme Court on Monday to allow their client a third penalty hearing, alleging that juror misconduct led to his death sentence.
Prosecutors argued that a statement made by the jury forewoman about whether someone sentenced to life without the possibility of parole could end up out of prison had nothing to do with the jury's decision to sentence Maestas to death in 2005.
Instead, prosecutor Nancy Becker told the high court, "no reasonable jury would decide something different" based on the facts of the savage slaying of 3-year-old Kristyanna Cowan. The facts included that Maestas stabbed the child in the head and, using the handle of a butcher knife, lifted her 32-pound body off the ground to his eye level, Becker told the full panel of seven Supreme Court justices, who heard arguments in Las Vegas.
But attorney Tony Sgro said that during deliberations, the jury was swayed by comments made by forewoman Tina Ransom, a 911 dispatcher in Boulder City, who said she had seen defendants who were sentenced to life without parole walking the streets with electronic monitoring devices.
Maestas pleaded guilty in 2005 to killing Kristyanna after a methamphetamine deal between Maestas and the girl's parents went bad. Maestas had bought a $125 baggie of salt. Kristyanna's sister, Brittney Bergeron Himel, was left paralyzed from the attack.
Jurors considered four sentences for Maestas: death, life with the possibility of parole, life without the possibility of parole or 100 years with parole eligibility after 40 years. The jury unanimously chose death.
Defense attorneys learned about Ransom's comment in 2008, when juror Rachel Poore contacted them and said the comments had swayed the vote.
Poore also said she was wracked with guilt after the sentence and contacted Maestas in prison and asked for his forgiveness. Poore pledged to have a tattoo of a dove inked on her body for Maestas.
Sgro said that before Ransom made the comment, the first vote was taken and showed some jurors opting for the death penalty while others voted in favor of life without the possibility of parole.
It wasn't until after the comment that the jury voted unanimously for death, Sgro said.
The attorney also took issue with Becker's argument that the facts of the case could lead only to a death sentence when the first penalty hearing for Maestas ended with a hung jury.
Sgro wrote in a brief to the high court that Ransom's "claimed special knowledge and alleged insight ... infected the jury's deliberations as it effectively swayed the jury against the option of sentencing Maestas to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."
Becker said Ransom's comment should be considered "general knowledge" and did not cause the jury to consider evidence outside of what was presented during the penalty phase.
Becker also said that testimony from the jurors following the trial showed that after Ransom made her comment, another juror said they should stick to following the instructions in the case, and the matter was dropped.
Juror instructions included that the verdict must be based on the law, regardless of jurors' opinions of the law and that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole "means exactly what it says, that the defendant shall not be eligible for parole."
In 2009, Judge Donald Mosley denied Maestas' motion for resentencing, setting the stage for Monday's Supreme Court appeal.
The high court adjourned after about an hour of argument. There is no timetable for when the court will hand down a decision.
Maestas, now 28, did not attend the hearing and remains on death row at Ely State Prison.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-1039.