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Commutation authority disputed

York County Circuit Judge N. Prentis Smiley lacked any authority to commute the death sentence of capital murder defendant Daryl Renard Atkins to life in prison, an attorney told the Supreme Court of Virginia today.Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr. and Justice Barbara Milano Keenan seemed to have trouble with that concept. Circuit judges have subject matter jurisdiction over all aspects of a criminal case, they responded to Melissa Hoy, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Chesterfield County who was named as a special prosecutor in the case following allegations that the York prosecutor’s office had failed to disclose exculpatory material during Atkins’ trial in February 1998 for the November 1996 murder and robbery of Eric Michael Nesbit.

True, Hoy said, but in this case, the Supreme Court had ordered Smiley to conduct a jury trial on whether Atkins was retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for mentally retarded defendants.

During proceedings before the jury trial on that issue, Smiley found that exculpatory evidence should have been disclosed during the trial and commuted the sentence in January 2008.

The high court’s mandate limited Smiley’s jurisdiction in the case to the mental retardation issue, Hoy contended.

Hassell questioned whether the court could limit the trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction in that manner. Under that logic, the Supreme Court would have the power to expand or restrict the authority of the lower courts, he said, and the jurisdiction of courts is set by statute.

If exculpatory information existed and should have been turned over to the defense, the remedy is a new trial, not commutation, Hoy argued.

John A. Gibney, representing the lower court (Smiley died a few months after commuting the sentence), said the high court’s order to hold the retardation hearing didn’t change the circuit court’s general jurisdiction over criminal matters.

A trial court has the authority to take necessary actions after remand, and the commonwealth has a limited right of appeal, which was why it is challenging the commutation through petitions for mandamus and prohibition, neither of which apply in this case, Gibney contended.

The court is expected to issue an opinion on April 17.

By Alan Cooper

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