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Justices uphold death sentence

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The Indiana Supreme Court has upheld the sentence for a man sentenced to die for the 2001 rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in southern Indiana.

A unanimous 21-page decision came today in Roy Lee Ward v. State, No. 74S00-0707-DP-263, affirming a sentence imposed after the defendant's second trial held before Spencer Circuit Special Judge Robert Pigman.

Ward was convicted for the rape and murder of Stacy Payne in Spencer County in July 2001. He'd pretended to be searching for a lost dog, and convinced the teenager to let him inside her house where raped her on the kitchen floor and then fatally slashed her body and throat with a knife.

The first trial resulted in guilty verdicts for murder, rape, and criminal deviate conduct and a jury recommended the death penalty, but those convictions and the sentence were reversed in 2004 because of pre-trial publicity. On remand, the parties agreed to bring in a jury from Clay County with a special judge holding the trial in his Vanderburgh County courtroom. The defendant pleaded guilty to murder and rape charges and the jury and judge issued a death penalty again.

Ward appealed on arguments that the Indiana death penalty statute is unconstitutional, that the jury wasn't property selected, that evidence from a warrantless search and photo evidence shouldn't have been admitted, and that the death sentence wasn't appropriate.

But justices rejected all of Ward's appellate arguments, including the photo evidence claim on grounds that the photos were gruesome but relevant to the case. Ward's attorneys had also argued that the 120 prospective jurors should have been questioned individually, outside the presence of other potential jurors, so that no one's answers would be overheard or influence another. Attorneys said jurors were ultimately lumped into groups of 10 or 20 and questioned, and they prevented Ward from getting a fair second trial.

"A trial court has broad discretionary power to regulate the form and substance of voir dire," Justice Brent E. Dickson wrote for the court. "Individually sequestered voir dire is not mandated in any case under Indiana law, including capital cases, absent highly unusual or potentially damaging circumstances. ... The defendant has not established reversible error in the trial court's modification of the format for questioning potential jurors in this case."

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard concurred in the decision to affirm, adding that he continues to believe that "there is less justification for appellate alteration of sentence than there was when judges (rather than juries) were the final deciders of sentence."

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