The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week in Simmons v. Epps that a trial court’s sentencing phase exclusion of a defendant’s self-made videotape expressing remorse was not objectively unreasonable.
In 1996, Gary Carl Simmons killed his drug dealer, Jeffrey Wolfe, and raped Wolfe’s girlfriend, Charlene Leaser. After locking Leaser in a box, Simmons used butcher knives from his job at grocery store meat department to cut Wolfe’s body into small pieces and toss it in the bayou.
Following the murder, Simmons made a tape for his ex-wife and daughter expressing remorse for his crimes without directly admitting to the murder, and turned himself in to the police.
After a one-week trial, a jury found Simmons guilty of capital murder, kidnapping, and rape. At sentencing, the state called no witnesses and did not make an opening statement other than to introduce forty-six exhibits from trial, including the tools used to dismember Wolfe.
Simmons called six mitigation witnesses, including his ex-wife, his half-brother, and his half-sister. The witnesses generally testified that he was a “family man” who cared deeply for his daughters and that the crimes Simmons was charged with were totally out of character for him.
The jury returned a death verdict for Simmons. Simmons filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied. He later appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court on 27 errors, including whether the trial court erred in refusing to consider the videotape expressing his remorse at sentencing.
The Mississippi Supreme Court found that Simmons could have taken the stand at trial to express remorse, and admitting such evidence would open the door for criminals to create evidence by making statements in their favor for subsequent use at trial to demonstrate their innocence.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the statements in Simmons’s videotape did not have the “considerable assurance of reliability” that the Supreme Court found in Chambers v. Mississippi or the “substantial reasons” to support its reliability that the Court found in Green v. Georgia.
The Fifth Circuit also reiterated the Mississippi Supreme Court’s argument that introducing the videotape without testifying would have allowed Simmons to show that he felt remorse without the ability to cross-examine him.
Do you agree with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Simmons v. Epps, or do you think that courts should give greater latitude to sentencing phase testimony in death penalty cases?
- Simmons v. Epps (Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- FindLaw’s Fifth Circuit blog (FindLaw)
- Incorrect Death Penalty Instruction Not Harmless (FindLaw’s Fifth Circuit blog)
- Court Denies Stay, DeYoung Execution to be Taped (FindLaw’s Supreme Court blog)
- No Additions to Habeas Petition in Post-Conviction Relief (FindLaw’s Fifth Circuit blog