Circuit Judge Gael Wood has directed attorneys on both sides of a capital murder case to file briefs over concerns raised by a Missouri Supreme Court judge in a 1988 death sentence case.
Judge Wood set a Thursday, May 3, deadline for defense and prosecution post trial briefs in the case of Vernell Loggins Jr., 39, of Pacific.
In February, a Franklin County jury found Loggins guilty of first-degree murder and recommended that he be sentenced to death for the Nov. 3, 2009, murder of Stephanie Fields, Pacific.
Judge Wood continued the case to Tuesday, April 17, for sentencing, but later passed the case to Monday, May 21, after researching an issue regarding the Supreme Court’s decision in 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.
Judge Charles Blackmar concurred with the other justices, but in a separate opinion he raised a concern about the death penalty aggravator that was applied in the case — depravity of mind — which is the same as in the Loggins ruling.
“I doubt very much that a finding based on ‘depravity of mind,’ without ‘torture,’ would suffice to authorize a death sentence,” Judge Blackmar wrote in his opinion.
Judge Wood, in a letter to defenses and prosecutors, remarked that it “seems to be Judge Blackmar’s opinion that a death penalty based upon ‘depravity of mind’ without an additional finding of ‘torture’ will not pass Constitutional muster . . .
“It is my request that each side submit a post trial brief specifically addressing Judge Blackmar’s concerns by 4:30 p.m. May 2, 2012,” Judge Wood said in the letter.
Judge Wood could follow the jury’s recommendation and sentence Loggins to be executed, or he could sentence him to life in prison with no chance of parole.
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.
Maintenance workers at the Monroe Woods apartment 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.
The last time a defendant in a Franklin County murder case was executed was Aug. 31, 1990. It was nine years after the defendant was tried and found guilty.
The defendant in that case, George C. Gilmore, 44, was sentenced to death for the March 1981 slaying of Mary Luella Watters of Robertsville. Watters was killed in her bed during a burglary by Gilmore and two other men.
The trial was held in Osage County where it was moved on a change of venue.