Seven months after a Franklin County jury recommended the death penalty in the murder case of Vernell Loggins, Circuit Judge Gael Wood tossed out the recommendation and handed down a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.
In February, the jury found Loggins Jr., 40, Pacific, guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the slaying of his girlfriend, Stephanie Fields, in November 2009, and recommended that he be executed for the crime.
The sentencing had been postponed three times before the judge made his ruling shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday.
Authorities said Loggins stabbed Fields 25 times, then cut off her head and hands, placed them in a plastic bag and threw them in the Meramec River east of Eureka. Searchers later found the bag containing the head and hands where it had washed up on the riverbank.
“I don’t agree with the judge’s sentence,” Franklin County Prosecutor Bob Parks told The Missourian. “I believe he deserved the death penalty, but we will abide by the judge’s ruling — that’s why we have judges.”
Wood’s decision to give the man a life sentence instead of the death penalty hinged on the question of the amount of time between the death of the victim and when her body was dismembered, according to a memorandum issued by Wood.
He said prosecutors could not prove the immediacy of the dismemberment which is a key component that a “statutory aggravator” existed.
That means the mutilation and disfigurement was an act apart from the murder, and because the jury’s unanimous decision to recommend the death penalty may have been based on the immediacy of the dismemberment, Wood ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional.
The memorandum states that Franklin County prosecutors argued to the jury that dismemberment of Fields’ body occurred “immediately” after her death, but they did not prove the time of dismemberment without a reasonable doubt.
“The court, having carefully reviewed the relevant evidence, concludes that there was insufficient evidence in this regard,” Wood stated in the memorandum.
“Based on the evidence presented, it could have easily been hours,” according to Wood. “The state, therefore, failed to meet its burden of proof to justify imposition of the death penalty on the basis of the dismemberment.”
Given the unanimous decision of the jury, if one juror was swayed to recommend the death penalty based on the time of dismemberment then the death penalty violates Loggins’ constitutional rights, according to Wood.
Parks told The Missourian that testimony from St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Case proves Fields’ body was dismembered directly after her death.
“We believe that we proved that through the testimony of Dr. Case and the time line that the body was dismembered right after that,” said Parks. “I am not arguing with his interpretation, but I would have interpreted it differently.”
“The judge had the final say,” he added. “Although we are disappointed in the judge’s ruling, we are not questioning it.”
The memorandum also states, “In making this determination, the court is not ignoring the hard work and difficult decision of the jury in recommending the death penalty. The jury did its job based upon the instructions it was given. However, the court has now concluded after lengthy deliberation that it is constitutionally prohibited from following the jury’s recommendation in this case.
A sentencing hearing had been initially set for March 12, but then continued by Wood until April 17.
In April, Wood postponed the hearing until May 21 and requested attorneys on both sides of the capital murder case file briefs over concerns raised by the Missouri Supreme Court 1988 death sentence case of State v. Gerald Smith.
Smith, who was found guilty of murdering a woman in 1981, was sentenced to death in the case. On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed Smith’s conviction and the death penalty ruling. He was executed in 1990.
“The reason for the postponement is that I have not yet reached a decision as to sentencing,” Wood stated in a letter to prosecuting and defense attorneys. The letter was dated April 12.
The sentencing was again postponed in May and Wood apologized for not reaching a decision saying, “There are a great number of factual and legal considerations that must be resolved before making a decision of this gravity.”
During Thursday’s sentencing, Loggins claimed that his attorneys did not act in his best interest.
He claims he met with them a total of five hours in two years regarding the case. He also claims that there were witnesses who were not called to testify on his behalf.
“These people, I think, would have come forward,” he said.
Loggins also claims that there was DNA evidence from two other people found in the victim’s rape kit and that his iPhone GPS showed he was in Indianapolis at the time of the murder.
He also argued the legitimacy of the search warrants.
Judge Wood denied a motion for a new trial and found no probable cause that Loggins had ineffective counsel.
Parks told The Missourian that if any of those claims were true, Loggins’ attorneys would have used it to defend their client.
He added that Loggins was caught on video purchasing items at the Wal-Mart in Pacific that were used to dispose of Fields’ body.
Maintenance workers at the Monroe Wood Apartment complex discovered Fields’ body Nov. 3, 2009, in a plastic trash can that had been placed near a dumpster.
The St. Louis Area Major Case Squad was activated shortly after Fields’ body was found in the trash can and within hours had identified Loggins as a key suspect. When investigators entered the apartment they found a “substantial amount of blood” along with pieces of skin and other tissue.