Friday, June 25, 2010

Attorney specializes in capital cases

One client saved, another executed


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Ketchum attorney Andrew Parnes discusses the ups and downs of handling death penalty cases. On Monday, he successfully got an Idaho inmate off death row. Last Friday, another client was executed in Utah. Photo by David N. Seelig

Within the span of only a few days, Ketchum attorney Andrew Parnes had a major victory and a major defeat. It's a high-stakes game that Parnes plays in court—nothing short of life or death for his clients.

On Thursday, June 17, Parnes was in Salt Lake City making a last-ditch effort to save the life of condemned murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner. He failed, and Gardner was executed by firing squad early the next morning.

On Monday, June 21, Parnes was in Lewiston, Idaho, where he successfully got a condemned man off of death row.

"I got the weekend off. I needed a little R&R. I got to watch my kid race," Parnes said in an interview Thursday.

Parnes has been handling capital punishment cases for 25 years. Because of his experience, he is often assigned as co-counsel to death penalty cases in Idaho, Utah and California.

"In capital cases, two counsels are always appointed, and sometimes you need more," Parnes said. "These cases are extremely complicated. If you're going to execute someone, you need to make sure the system is the best it can be."

In the Lewiston case, Parnes helped save the life of 52-year-old George Junior Porter, who was convicted of beating his girlfriend to death in 1988 and sentenced to death. A plea agreement was finalized Monday, wherein the Lewis County prosecutor's office agreed to overturn Porter's conviction in exchange for a guilty plea to second-degree murder and a stipulated sentence that amounted to 24.5 years in prison. Given credit for time already served, Porter is now set for release on Dec. 5, 2013.

Parnes said there have long been lingering questions about Porter's guilt, and new DNA evidence in the case could have mandated a new trial. Under the plea agreement, Porter accepted the second-degree murder conviction without admitting guilt.

"He has maintained that he was innocent all along," Parnes said. "But innocent people have been convicted before. Based on everything we've seen, he was innocent."

Parnes described the last few days of his life as "the downs and the ups."

The "down" was the execution of 49-year-old Gardner, who was convicted and sentenced to death for killing an attorney in 1985 in an attempted escape from a Salt Lake City courthouse.

Gardner was shot to death by a five-man firing squad shortly after midnight Friday, June 18.

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Parnes said Gardner was the first client of his to be executed.

"Personally, I felt saddened by it," Parnes said. "I'm sad that we still impose the death penalty in this society—life in prison without the possibility of parole should be sufficient punishment.

"I'm saddened because over the years I've got to know him and considered him a friend. I mourn his death. He's a tragic figure—he's symbolic of what is wrong in our country."

Parnes said Gardner was a victim of sexual abuse, the first time occurring when he was only 2. His older brothers, Parnes said, got Gardner started on drugs when he was 6.

"His stepfather introduced him to a life of crime when he was 10 years old," Parnes said. "He wound up at a very young age to become a person who committed a lot of crimes."

However, Parnes added, "there was no doubt about it—he was not innocent."

"It's a sad situation," Parnes said. "There was not a system set up to spot him as a child, help him and get him treatment. Health and Welfare just closed up in Bellevue. What does that say about where we place our priorities as a society?"

Parnes said that once Gardner received psychological counseling as a prison inmate, he began to change.

"He had begun to understand what was wrong with his life," Parnes said. "He became a completely different person. He didn't get in trouble. He counseled other inmates about what went wrong with him.

"It's so sad to see him executed on a personal level," Parnes said. "It makes me question myself. Did I do all that I could? Did I raise all the issues I could? I think I did everything right, but I don't know.

"Fortunately, I didn't have to watch the execution. I was willing to, but he didn't want me to.

"I didn't win the case. If you don't win, you lose."

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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