State Supreme Court overturns death sentence

8:55 PM, Dec 20, 2002   |    comments
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The state Supreme Court threw out the death sentence Friday of a Rockingham County woman who admitted hiring a killer to shoot her abusive husband.

In a rare ruling, the justices ruled that the death sentence was too harsh for Christene Knapp Kemmerlin and changed her sentence to life without parole.

Kemmerlin, 34, was one of six women on death row; there are 206 men on death row.

Prosecutors argued that Kemmerlin really wanted to collect a $100,000 life insurance policy when she paid a hit man $150 to kill her husband, Wayne Kemmerlin.

The confessed killer, William Antone Johnson, received a life sentence after being convicted of first-degree murder.

"This court has conducted an exhaustive review of the record in analyzing whether defendant's death sentence is consistent with other cases in the proportionality pool," said the opinion written by Associate Justice George Wainwright.

"The differences between defendant's case and other cases in the pool are too numerous to list."

The evidence didn't support the prosecutor's contention that the killing was for monetary gain, the opinion said.

Another factor in favor of Kimmerlin was evidence that she considered stopping the killing.

State law requires the Supreme Court to impose a life sentence if it finds a death sentence isn't too harsh a punishment.

Kimmerlin's lawyer, Kathryn VandenBerg of Hillsborough, said the case included ample evidence of physical abuse in the Kimmerlins' marriage and earlier sexual and physical abuse.

"The thrust of my argument was that the sentence was unfair," she said.

Ken Rose of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham said the court's ruling was the first citing proportionality since 1988.

The court has heard more than 200 death cases in that time.

"The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst defendants and the worst crimes," Rose said.

He said the current Supreme Court "is particularly concerned about fairness and has made an effort to carefully examine the cases and the ones they feel are unfair, they send them back."

The high court also sent two other death penalty cases back to lower courts for new sentencing hearings and ruled that a fourth death case was without error.

The court ordered a new sentencing for Kyle O. Berry, who was sentenced to death in New Hanover County in the 1998 slaying of a woman who knew about another killing he committed.

Defense attorneys argued that three prospective jurors were improperly excused before the trial when they said they opposed the death penalty but felt they could fairly rule in the case.

The court has ruled before that capital jurors don't have to favor the death penalty.

In another resentencing order, the court said James Lewis Millsaps should get a new hearing for the January 2000 killing of two Wilkes County women.

The court said the trial court should have told jurors they could consider second-degree murder as well as first-degree murder.

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