Convicted murderer spared death penalty after 23 years

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

— In 1990, a jury condemned Patricia Jennings to Death Row for fatally beating her 80-year-old husband in a Wilson motel – a soap-opera crime she denied from the witness stand.

After 23 years, Jennings on Thursday skirted the death penalty that has loomed for a third of her life, an elderly inmate spared by legal foul-ups. With Jennings, 70, now serving life in prison, only two female Death Row inmates remain: Blanche Taylor Moore and Carlette Parker.

“Good luck to you, Ms. Jennings,” Superior Court Judge Wayland Sermons told the frail, handcuffed woman.

“Thank you, sir,” she said.

Sermons granted Jennings’ motion to vacate the harshest punishment, ruling that she received ineffective counsel. Her lawyers at trial and on appeal did not request that jurors consider that she had no significant criminal history, a factor that may have tipped the scales against death.

“Our system of justice cannot tolerate the freakish result whereby one death-sentenced prisoner is fortunate enough to be assigned a direct appeal lawyer who raised a clearly meritorious issue,” Sermons said in his order, “while another death-sentenced prisoner with the same claim is executed because her lawyer missed the issue.”

He then resentenced Jennings to life in prison. Because her crime is decades old and subject to laws that no longer apply, she could technically become eligible for parole. Attorneys consider it unlikely.

But in reaching an agreement, Jennings’ attorneys dropped a separate claim that the State Bureau of Investigation concealed favorable lab results and used false and unreliable evidence to win her conviction and death sentence.

Her case was listed among those in an independent audit released by the state in 2010, known as the Swecker Report after a former FBI official, that showed the SBI hid evidence.

In return, prosecutors agreed not to appeal Sermons’ ruling or seek a new sentence against Jennings.

Gretchen Engel, attorney with the Center For Death Penalty Litigation who has worked on Jennings’ case since 1994, described herself as “very happy” with the outcome. The defense dropped the claim against the SBI to get Jennings’ case out of legal limbo, Engel said: “This litigation could go on and on.”

Jennings’ also dropped her motion seeking relief under the Racial Justice Act Thursday.

In 1990, her four-week trial created such a stir that spectators, most of them women, filled the courtroom each day waiting for fresh details.

“One of them said it was better than watching ‘The Young and the Restless,’” a bailiff told the News & Observer at the time.

The odd-couple marriage between Bill and Pat Jennings – he was 80, she 48 – helped paint the defendant as a manipulative wife out for an elderly man’s money. Witnesses recalled him transferring to her half of his assets, valued at $150,000. They described her speaking to him in cold, unloving tones that could escalate into physical abuse.

“He stated that (she) had kicked him in the groin on several occasions with those pointed cowboy boots,” friend Nathan Hales testified.

Details from the crime scene were gruesome enough that the editor of the Wilson Daily Times apologized in a column for having to print them – offensive even when mincing words. Witnesses described finding tissue from the victim on a pair of forceps that might have come from an eyelid, the lining of the mouth or a penis.

Another friend, Danny Walston, told jurors that Jennings asked him to make sure an autopsy was performed in case he died because his wife “is a nurse and she can do things.”

But the most bizarre testimony came from Pat Jennings herself, who described falling in love with her elderly husband while she was working in a nursing home where he counseled patients with alcohol problems.

She described her husband as a former alcoholic who suffered spells of dementia when depressed. She called that his “canine behavior,” and said he would spend several days barking, walking on all floors and eating off the floor.

His wounds, she said, came from frequent episodes of self-mutilation – one of which preceded his death in the motel, where they stayed off and on while attending board meetings for a halfway house. During those spells, she testified, he banged his naked body against a bathtub, extract his penis from his zipper with a pair of pliers and pounded his testicles with a steel-tipped shoe. Once, she said, he beat himself with a wedge of hard cheese wrapped in a plastic bag.

“Had you ever seen him do that before?” asked her attorney.

“Not with cheese, no,” she said.

Back at Women’s Prison in Raleigh, Jennings has spent the last 23 years in isolation, mostly watching television and reading with a handful of other condemned women.

Now that she’s off Death Row, her family visits will be more open, she’ll wear a different uniform and she’ll await a natural death.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

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