Voiding of death sentence sought for man convicted of killing Arkansas couple, 8-year-old girl

Posted: September 12, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

In this Oct. 31 1997, file photo, Danny Lee waits for his arraignment hearing for the 1996 murders of an Arkansas family in Russellville.

A new effort was filed late Monday to void the death penalty imposed 17 years ago after a federal jury in Little Rock convicted Oklahoman Daniel Lewis Lee of killing a Pope County family during a cross-country rampage.

A 71-page motion to vacate Lee's 1999 conviction on murder and racketeering charges and vacate his death sentence was filed by two assistant federal public defenders in Maryland who are part of the Federal Capital Habeas Project.

It was the first activity documented in the high-profile 1997 racketeering and murder case since April 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court gave notice that it wouldn't review a March 2014 ruling preventing Lee from proceeding with another appeal. That appeal challenged the adequacy of previous attorneys' efforts to fight Lee's death sentence.

Lee of Yukon, Okla., was convicted in 1999 alongside Chevie Kehoe of Colville, Wash., of several crimes that culminated in the 1996 slayings of gun dealer Bill Mueller, 53; his wife, Nancy Mueller, 28; and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, who lived in the tiny town of Tilly. Prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice said Lee and Kehoe killed the family and threw their rock-weighted bodies into the Illinois Bayou at Russellville in a scheme to steal a large cache of guns and $50,000 cash from Mueller to use in the establishment of a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest. Mueller had recently inherited the money, and because he didn't believe in using banks, Lee and Kehoe believed he had buried the money somewhere on his property.

Kehoe, who was considered the leader of the conspiracy, was sentenced to life in prison without parole after jurors found that his attorneys had proved several facts that mitigated a death sentence. Prosecutors then decided to pursue the death penalty against Lee, despite considering him more of a soldier than a leader.

They presented testimony that he was a psychopath, had earlier helped his cousin kill a man during a robbery, had threatened to kill a jailer and was so predisposed to violence that he would continue to be a future danger in prison if not executed. He was sentenced to death.

In the petition filed by attorneys Morris H. Moon and George G. Kouros, both of the federal defender's office in Greenbelt, Md., the attorneys argue that Lee's conviction and sentence violated the U.S. Constitution, justifying another effort to be heard.

The petition focuses on the testimony of Chevie Kehoe's mother, Gloria Kehoe, and brother, Cheyne Kehoe, who both said Chevie Kehoe had confessed his and Lee's involvement in the Mueller killings to them. Both had motives to "curry favor" with the government, "given their own criminal activities," the attorneys argued, noting that other evidence prosecutors used to corroborate that testimony has since been shown to be suspect itself.

It has already been reported that a single hair that prosecutors had used at trial to tie Lee to the crimes, saying it was "microscopically similar" to his, was in fact not his, according to post-trial DNA analysis.

Now, the attorneys said, they have learned that the government "suppressed evidence that would have caused the jury to discount the second piece of [corroborating] evidence," the testimony of a witness, James Wanker.

Wanker testified that Lee, 45, had once told him that when he "went south," he had "wrapped up" and "taped" some people and "threw them in the swamp."

When the Mueller family's bodies were pulled from the bayou, a plastic grocery bag was found duct-taped tightly over each head.

The federal defenders say prosecutors "told the jury at the time that it should credit Mr. Wanker's testimony about Mr. Lee's confession because he was an unbiased witness who had no incentive to come forward other than to tell the truth."

But in a sworn declaration attached to the petition, Wanker revealed that "he repeatedly told the Government prior to trial that he did not believe Danny Lee's statement implicating himself in the Mueller murders was true.

Rather, Mr. Wanker told authorities that Mr. Lee had a habit of falsely claiming responsibility for criminal acts in order to make himself seem like a 'tough guy,' and that the boast about an unspecified murder was delivered in the same 'empty bragging' manner the witness had seen before."

The attorneys wrote, "Upon recently being shown copies of the written reports of his pre-trial interview, Mr. Wanker was surprised to see that they included none of his warnings."

They wrote that according to Wanker, prosecutors "instructed him not to volunteer this information while on the witness stand, and only to answer the specific questions asked of him.

"He therefore did not relate to the jury that Danny Lee had a penchant for boasting about acts he had not done; that he had consistently warned authorities about that fact; and that despite appearing as a witness for the Government, he continued to discount the veracity of Mr. Lee's purported admission."

The attorneys said that had defense attorneys known this at the time, they would have discredited or tried to exclude Walker's testimony, which is "now the sole corroborating evidence used to connect Daniel Lee to the murder of the Muellers."

The attorneys also criticized one of the prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lane Liroff, a California prosecutor who was working on special assignment for the Justice Department during the trial.

In a footnote, they said California courts vacated a 1996 first-degree murder conviction Liroff obtained, based on his failure to disclose exculpatory evidence, and that he was "named in a study on prosecutorial misconduct" in that state in 2010.

They said that also in 2010, fellow prosecutors and the California Government Attorneys Association even protested a commendation for Liroff, "pointing to a long history of questionable behavior including a month-long suspension for unethical actions."

The matter is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes, who was assigned the case after the retirement of the trial judge, the late U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele.

Holmes heard oral arguments in 2014 on Lee's previous effort to present evidence that he had been inadequately represented.

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Metro on 09/12/2018