Circuit Judge Chris Piazza this afternoon cleared the use of DNA and confessions obtained by Little Rock police in the trial of Curtis Lavelle Vance, facing a capital murder charge in the beating death of KATV anchor Anne Pressly.
Vance, despite warnings from his lawyer and the judge, took the stand himself today for almost two hours in the third day of a hearing to suppress evidence in the case.
David Koon reports:
Vance said that he had told the detectives what they wanted to hear in statements in November, December and February because of "aggressive" questioning and because he thought cooperating a little might save him from a death penalty. But under cross-examination, he never said he was threatened, coerced or offered any promises in return for the various statements in which he implicated himself.
He claimed he'd asked to talk to police in February, without his attorneys present, mostly so he could be driven away from the jail and allowed to smoke.
After hearing from a string of police officers disputing that Vance was mistreated, Piazza has ruled that all of Vance's statements and the crucial DNA evidence gathered during his November session with police may be admitted into evidence at his coming trial Nov. 2. He also denied a defense request to postpone the trial to further test Vance's mental capacity. Mentally retarded inmates -- defined as those with IQs below 65 -- cannot be executed. Testimony Thursday indicated Vance had been tested at 75 recently. In earlier hearings, the judge heard that Vance's mother said she'd struck his head as a child while she abused drugs.
A looming question: Is a plea bargain possible in this case -- life without parole rather than the death penalty to bring an end to what otherwise would be a years-long proceeding? Many factors enter into that, of course, beginning with whether Vance is innocent. The Pressly family, the prosecutor, defense lawyers and Vance all would have a role in such a decision.
Vance said he cooperated because he was worried police would seek the death penalty. He said he feared that he didn't seem remorseful enough to be cosnidered for a life sentence. He said blamed "police trickery" for giving up a DNA sample and other damaging evidence. "I don't do deals with police," he said.
On Feb. 24, he said that detectives would tell him what to say when they left the interview room for smoke breaks.
Under cross-examination by John Johnson, Vance admitted detectives weren't physically violent. He had claimed an officer pulled a gun on him after his arrest in November. In February, he said,"They were nice how they were treating me, but aggressive how their tone was."
Judge Piazza rejected Vance's contention that he didn't know his participation in the first interview in Marianna in November was voluntary. It was during this session that police said Vance voluntarily provided DNA evidence, a saliva swab, used to match with evidence found at the crime scene.
Ten officers disputed Vance's account that he was physically mistreated during his arrest.
The defense tried to mount an argument that Vance was mentally disabled and unable to give consent to his interviews. Piazza said that Vance's "intellectual function seems to be quite good. I don't see that as a problem in this case." Defense attorney Stephanie Streett said Vance's repeated trips to police were clearly evidence of someone who "isn't quite right."
In denying suppression of the Feb. 24 confession, Piazza said he believed Vance went to police offices voluntarily and that this was supported by subsequent actions. "I just don't see intimidation," he said.
Deputy Prosecutor John Johnnson said of Vance, "He was trying to take himself out of a box. He knew what his rights were and he waived them."
Piazza said he'd never seen anyone exercise First Amendment privileges more clearly than Vance, as he did when he asked county jailers to arrange for him to see Little Rock police.