There is an interesting case being played out in Iowa right now – interesting because not only does it involves a woman on Death Row facing the death penalty, but also because it involves the federal death penalty statute.

Here’s what’s going on.

Last week, United States District Judge Mark Bennett, setting on the U.S. District Court Bench for the Northern District of Iowa, removed Angela Johnson – one of the two women setting on federal death row – from a death sentence, and gave a big, basic reason for his action as part of a 448-page ruling (that’s a ream of paper to give his decision, imagine that):

the trial lawyers defending the woman in a trial where she was found guilty of the execution-style murders of five people did not present mitigating evidence about her troubled mental state that could have spared her from capital punishment.

(For more about mitigating evidence, read our earlier post on the subject, or delve into details about how mitgation works by reading Terry’s case book/memoir shown in the left sidebar, where he describes case after case and the realities of mitigation evidence.)

Judge Bennett does not mince words: he tossed out  the death penalty sentence finding that her criminal defense attorneys had been "… alarmingly dysfunctional…." during the trial.

Read Judge Bennett’s Ruling – all 448 pages of it — online here.

What happens next?

Angela Johnson made the history books when she was given the death penalty because she was the first woman to be sentenced to death in the federal system since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty back in 1976.

She’s still guilty of the crime, that hasn’t changed.  Judge Bennett did not erase the conviction — and under the law, Angela Johnson is still – in the words of Judge Bennett – overwhelmingly guilty of going with her then-boyfriend, alleged to be the leading methamphetamine dealer in the Midwest, to kill and then bury the bodies of federal informants (and drug dealers) Terry DeGeus and Greg Nicholson, along with Nicholson’s girlfriend, Lori Duncan and her young daughters, Kandi, 10, and Amber, 6. 

Attorney General Eric Holder must make a decision.  The U.S. Attorney General has to decide if the federal government will try and get the death penalty again for Angela Johnson, or not.  They’ve got a 60 day deadline.  They can appeal this judge’s ruling (and with that ream of paper, sounds like the judge is expecting this) or they can go back to trial and there would then be evidence presented once again regarding her sentencing. 

If that’s the path that’s taken by the U.S. Attorney, then the mitigating factors that upset Judge Bennett will come before the court … and for the first time, evidence about her mental health will be a consideration in deciding whether or not she should be executed.