September 23, 2010 - 11:00 pm
A Nevada district judge earlier this month ordered the immediate release of former death row inmate Ronnie Milligan after hearing testimony that the Navy veteran might have been wrongfully convicted of a 1980 slaying.
Milligan’s first lucky break occurred four years ago, when the Nevada Supreme Court set new death penalty sentencing protocols and applied them retroactively. The high court in 2006 essentially banned prosecutors from using the same "aggravating circumstance" that permitted them to seek the ultimate punishment at trial and also in the sentencing phase.
In practical terms, justices toughened the requirements that make an inmate eligible for the death penalty by requiring them to prove the existence of at least two aggravating factors, which include committing a murder while in the commission of another felony crime, such as robbery; use of a deadly weapon; torture killings; and multiple murders, among others.
Milligan was one of a handful of death row inmates who benefited from the decision.
That bit of good fortune came 26 years after his trial, when Milligan could say only that he was in an alcoholic blackout at the time of the slaying and had no memory of it.
In 1980, Milligan, then in his 20s and recently honorably discharged from the Navy, was headed west from Tennessee with a small group of people who had a vague notion of settling in California. They committed low-grade thefts of food, gas and alcohol for the misadventure.
At a store in Valmy, 45 miles northeast of Winnemucca, the group met tourist Zolihon Voinski, 77, and secretly removed the coil from her ignition so she couldn’t start her car. Under the pretense of driving her to a parts store in Winnemucca, the killers instead took Voinski into the high desert outside of town and beat and then bludgeoned her with a 12-pound sledgehammer. The robbery netted just $20 and a few traveler’s checks.
Milligan was the first of three people tried in the slaying, and the only one subject to the death penalty.
At a resentencing hearing in Winnemucca this month Dr. Donal Sweeney, an expert on blackouts caused by alcohol consumption, testified that in his opinion Milligan probably was in a blackout at the time of the brutal slaying.
The blackout might explain his lack of memory, but it isn’t a defense, said David Lockie, a prominent Northern Nevada attorney assigned Milligan’s case after the Supreme Court decision.
There are a significant number of facts to validate the faith Lockie and District Judge Richard Wagner have in Milligan’s innocence.
In 1980 Ramon Houston, a material witness for the state, offered purported eyewitness testimony that Milligan was the killer. Milligan’s co-defendants went along. Houston spent a year in the Humboldt County jail but was never charged in the slaying, while the co-defendants received shorter prison terms and were paroled years ago.
Doubts concerning Milligan’s guilt set in decades later when a letter signed by Houston was discovered, Lockie said. In it, Houston indicated that he killed Voinski, not Milligan. Also, Houston disclosed that Milligan wasn’t even there — the group earlier that day abandoned him because he had become a nuisance in a constant state of inebriation, said Lockie.
Houston denied writing the letter, Lockie said, but a handwriting expert would testify that he did.
Another co-defendant signed an affidavit swearing Milligan was not present at Voinski’s slaying, and that everybody involved conspired against him when they discovered he had no memory of that day.
There were inconsistencies at that long-ago trial, as well. Houston told police Milligan struck the victim a dozen times but when he testified the number changed to five. The coroner determined she was hit just once.
According to court papers, Houston also testified Voinski was stabbed in the heart multiple times, but the coroner testified there were no such wounds. Three other facts add to the confusion. Houston had the victim’s purse, and had blood on him. Milligan didn’t. For reasons never explained, Humboldt County deputies washed Houston’s clothes the night of the incident.
"The judge said it was a miscarriage of justice and I agree with that," said Lockie, adding that Milligan made an "unusually favorable" impression.
"He’s very humble, very patient," said Lockie. "Very different from what you would normally see."
Expressing "grave reservations" concerning Milligan’s guilt, Wagner nonetheless followed the sentencing recommendations of Lockie and Deputy Attorney General Daniel Niedert, who suggested a term of life with the possibility of parole.
Wagner determined Milligan was immediately eligible for parole and took the unusual step of ordering the state’s parole department to "immediately release" him. He remains in prison, though, pending parole board action.
"I’m not sure what will happen with that," said Lockie. "That kind of gets into separation of powers issues."
Lockie said Milligan harbors no ill will against the state or his co-defendants. Still, Milligan gets a bitter last laugh, whether he wants it or not.
"It’s ironic," said Lockie. "They’re all dead. He outlived them all."
Contact Doug McMurdo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5512 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.