The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in Dodd v. Trammell on Monday, September 16, 2013.
Defendant Rocky Eugene Dodd was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder in Oklahoma state court and received two death sentences. Dodd applied for relief from his convictions and sentences under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. All 15 claims in his application were denied. He appealed the denial of four claims: (1) that the evidence of guilt was insufficient to sustain his convictions; (2) that the trial court denied him the rights to present a complete defense and confront witnesses when it excluded evidence that somebody else had committed the murders; (3) that prosecutorial misconduct denied him a fair trial; and (4) that testimony by the victims’ relatives recommending the death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Tenth Circuit affirmed denial of relief on the first three claims but reversed on the victim impact testimony claim. As allowed under Oklahoma law, the victims’ family members had testified at the sentencing phase that they felt the defendant should receive the death penalty. The court held that under Payne v. Tennessee, it was “a violation of the Eighth Amendment to allow a victim or a victim’s family member to comment, during second-stage proceedings, on the appropriate sentence for a capital defendant.”
The court also held, for the first time, that the admission of the statements was not harmless error because it could not say the admission did not affect the jury’s verdict. Six of the eight prosecution witnesses recommended the death penalty. In addition, this was a weak case for the death penalty and the guilt of the defendant was not as clear cut as in cases where the error was found to be harmless. The court reversed and remanded with instructions to grant relief on Dodd’s sentences, subject to the State’s right to resentence him within a reasonable time.