RENO - Lawyers trying to get James Biela off Nevada's death row said Monday his sentence was emotionally motivated by an avalanche of news coverage and a public campaign for justice for the 19-year-old woman he was convicted of raping and strangling.
The appellant lawyers told the Nevada Supreme Court during oral arguments that Biela deserves a new trial in the 2008 killing of Brianna Denison and the sexual assaults of two other college coeds around the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.
John Petty, the chief appellate deputy public defender who wrote the appeal brief, said even if Biela is guilty of the crimes, he didn't deserve the death penalty. He said the jury's excessive penalty was motivated by passion generated by news coverage, a huge volume of secret witness reports, a public campaign in Brianna's name and the work of the Bring Bri Justice Foundation.
"This homicide became a media case resulting in becoming a death penalty case," Petty said.
Prosecutors said in court documents that no errors were made during Biela's 2010 trial, and his convictions and death sentence should be affirmed.
Appellate Deputy District Attorney Terry McCarthy said nothing in the record supports the argument that the verdict was "a product of passion or prejudice." He said there was a thorough jury selection process, "and at the end all parties were satisfied that the jurors would not be influenced by the publicity."
The justices did not indicate how long it would take for them to rule, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported.
The string of crimes around the campus north of the downtown casino district began in October 2007 and culminated in Denison's death in early 2008.
Denison, a sophomore at Santa Barbara City College in California, was home visiting friends when she was kidnapped in January 2008 while sleeping on a friend's couch at a residence across the street from the UNR campus.
Amid a manhunt, blue ribbons appeared on fences, posters and lapels throughout the Reno area. Her body, clothed only in socks, was found in a vacant field in Reno about a month later with a pair of thong underwear.
In November 2008, police arrested Biela, 30, thanks to a tip from a former girlfriend who reported that he had an obsession with thong panties. Two other women identified him as the man who sexually assaulted them in the months before Denison's disappearance.
Judge Robert Perry said at the sentencing that the string of attacks had the entire city on edge.
McCarthy said the judge and jury followed all of the rules and that Biela's execution should go forward.
"Perhaps it was because of the evidence that Biela was a serial rapist who then graduated into murder," McCarthy said. "It seems most likely that our community avoided a serial killer only because we were able to catch the killer before his next graduation ceremony."
Cheryl Bond, a deputy public defender also representing Biela, told the justices that his convictions were tainted because the judge tried the three cases together. By bundling them, the jurors confused some of the evidence, making a guilty verdict easier, she said.
McCarthy disagreed. He told the justices there was "sufficient connectedness" to place the cases before one jury at the same time. It was a crime spree that occurred within a 400-yard radius, many witnesses were the same, and there was an overlap of evidence, he said.
Bond said the crimes were committed under different circumstances, the assailant used different methods of attack, his treatment of the victims was different, and the type of sexual attack also differed. "They were not connected together in a scheme. The cases should have been severed."
The evidence was strong in one case, Bond said, while a witness statement was used in another. But when all three were bundled together, the jury probably confused the evidence and concluded "we have a bad person here. He must be guilty."