Death sentence in killing of six in Alabama
Judge orders death sentence in killing of six in Alabama
8/12/2005, 4:27 p.m. CT
By SAMIRA JAFARI
The Associated Press
LUVERNE, Ala. (AP) — A judge ordered a death sentence Friday for a man convicted of gunning down six members of his girlfriend's family at their rural home, a ruling that rejected the jury's recommendation that the killer's life be spared.
Circuit Judge Ed McFerrin imposed the sentence on Westley Devon Harris, 25, who was convicted of capital murder in the 2002 slaughter at Rutledge.
"This was not an easy decision because of my personal beliefs," said McFerrin, who has never before imposed the death penalty.
Attorney General Troy King had called the killings an "unspeakable horror" and urged McFerrin not to feel bound by the jury's 7-5 vote recommending life without parole.
"It's obvious to me that Judge McFerrin struggled with this legally and has chosen to put aside his personal convictions to rule with the law," King said.
Harris was convicted of gunning down six members of Janice Ball's family — her grandmother, mother, father and three teenage brothers — at their south Alabama farm during a daylong killing spree on Aug. 26, 2002, and then fleeing for three days with his girlfriend and child. Janice Ball, 16 at the time of the crime, later became the government's key witness.
Harris showed no reaction when the sentence was read. His father, West Robinson, said his son remained calm and was looking hopefully toward the appeals process.
"It ain't over yet," Robinson said.
But relatives of the victims said they felt great satisfaction after hearing McFerrin order Harris put to death.
"When they put that needle in his arm, I'll feel at ease," said Roger Hasley, brother of Janice Ball's father, Willie Hasley.
Coleman Ball, whose sister was Janice Ball's mother, JoAnn Ball, also said he felt the sentence was justified.
"This is what I wanted all along," he said. "It's still hard knowing that we can't go down there and visit anymore."
Prosecutors said during the trial that Harris killed the victims because he was angry they tried to keep him away from Janice Ball and their 18-month-old daughter.
Defense attorneys argued that she had motives to want her family dead — including claims of being sexually abused by her father and brothers. The defense also argued that the prosecution's forensic evidence and statements from Harris were either unreliable or did nothing to prove he pulled the trigger.
The victims were killed over the course of the day, some as they returned home from work or school. The bodies of Janice Ball's mother, JoAnn Ball, 35, and brother Tony, 17, were found in a trailer; brother John, 14, and grandmother Mila Ruth Ball, 62, in the kitchen of the main house; brother Jerry, 19, stuffed in a car trunk; and father Willie Hasley, 40, who also went by the name Willie Haslip, at a hog pen behind the trailer.
Defense attorneys embrace infamous
When the first lawyers appointed to represent Westley Devon Harris dropped the case, Charlotte Tesmer got a call.
Tesmer, a private attorney in Greenville, didn't hesitate when asked by a judge to help defend Harris. He was awaiting trial on charges he killed six members of his girlfriend's family at their Crenshaw County home.
"I knew that it was going to be a tough job," she said. "But I felt that his life was in our hands."
Tesmer is among lawyers who defend people charged with high-profile, heinous acts. The lawyers describe the work as pressure-filled, time-consuming and emotional.
But criminal lawyers say such cases are among the most important ones.
"When you're representing someone like that, you're representing their rights," said Birmingham lawyer Joe Morgan III. Morgan has defended numerous such suspects such as Ashley Jones, who, at 16, was convicted of killing her grandfather and aunt, and wounding her grandmother and younger sister.
Richard Jaffe, who has handled more than 50 capital murder cases, said defending such clients can be isolating, as well.
"You're fighting the prosecution," Jaffe said. "You're sometimes fighting the judge. Sometimes you're at odds with the press and often at odds with the public. It is lonely. It never gets less lonely."
Jaffe, who also helped free three men from Alabama's Death Row, now represents a man charged with the August shooting death of a Huntsville police officer.
In 2005, there were many high-profile cases.
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