A Tennessee man facing execution for raping and killing a Fort Campbell nurse was granted a new sentencing hearing Thursday when judges ruled he shouldn’t have been compared to “the devil incarnate” and serial killer Jeffrey Dahamer at trial.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals also concluded Ronnie M. Cauthern’s defense attorney did not properly investigate which family members would be willing to testify on his behalf and failed to pull together a coherent strategy to try to save his life.
The court ordered Cauthern, 46, resentenced within six months or for the death sentence to be vacated.
A jury condemned Cauthern for the Jan. 8, 1987, slaying of Rosemary Smith, a captain in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps at the military post on the Kentucky-Tennessee line. Her husband, Patrick Smith, also a captain and nurse, died in the attack at couple’s home in Clarksville, Tenn.
Prosecutors said Cauthern and a co-defendant, Brett Patterson, placed Rosemary Smith in a closet and forced her to listen to Patrick Smith’s death in the next room. Rosemary Smith was then raped twice, lived through an unsuccessful strangling attempt then strangled to death.
Patterson, 49, was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for parole in 2047. Cauthern received a life sentence for Patrick Smith’s death.
Sharon Curtis-Flair, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, said Thursday that prosecutors were reviewing the opinion before deciding what action to take next.
In addressing the jury at a resentencing hearing in 1995, then-Assistant Attorney General Steve Garrett cited the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy For The Devil,” and referenced Dahmer, a Wisconsin man convicted of killing and eating parts of his victims. The prosecutor also repeatedly referred to Cauthern as “the evil one.”
“The evil one took the name of Ronnie Cauthern on that day,” Garrett said. “That was his name, and he’s beyond redemption.”
Lower courts have found that it is a stretch to think anyone would conclude that Cauthern really was the devil and jurors didn’t base their decision on those remarks.
“While that may be true, it’s real relevance is that it highlights the outlandish nature of the prosecutor’s remarks,” Judge Eric Clay wrote for the court’s majority. “And, one would not need to believe that (Cauthern) was himself the devil in order to have been improperly inflamed such that the verdict cannot be trusted.”
Judge John M. Rogers dissented from that section of Clay’s opinion, saying both the “substantial evidence of the grisly manner” in which Rosemary Smith died as well as the differing sentences for the deaths of the husband and wife bolster the contention that jurors weren’t swayed by the prosecution’s remarks.
“The evidence before the jury much more clearly established that Rosemary’s death was heinous, atrocious, or cruel,” Rogers wrote.
Rogers and Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. signed on with Clay’s conclusion that the defense was inadequate.
The resentencing will mark the third time Cauthern appears in court to learn his fate in the death of Rosemary Smith. A Tennessee state court granted him a new sentencing in 1995 after concluding that a judge improperly allowed jurors to hear about a statement Cauthern made to police.