The Arizona Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty today for convicted murderer Darrel Pandeli after finding a Maricopa County Superior Court judge overstepped his bounds when reviewing the case.
According to the court’s unanimous ruling, Judge Robert Gottsfield repeatedly second-guessed defense counsel’s strategy when he should have offered deference. The high court found Gottsfield “did not explain how Pandeli suffered prejudice from any of the acts or omissions” he believed to be an ineffective defense.
“Simply disagreeing with strategy decisions cannot support determination that representation was inadequate,” Justice Clint Bolick wrote in the court’s opinion.
Pandeli was sentenced to death by a judge in 1998 for the murder of Holly Iler.
The state appealed Gottsfield’s 2015 decision to throw out the death penalty.
The state Supreme Court categorically disagreed with Gottsfield finding that 15 claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and a due process violation were grounds enough for throwing out the death sentence.
The justices noted many of Gottsfield’s findings centered around the fact that Pandeli’s trial counsel, Gary Shriver and his co-counsel Dawn Sinclair, made a “spur-of-the-moment decision” not to cross-examine the state’s key witness, psychologist Dr. Brad Bayless. Gottsfield determined Bayless “frequently doesn’t have any scientific basis for his opinion” that Pandeli was psychotic and “that there’s no saving him.”
Shriver and Sinclair testified to that decision’s “wrongheadedness,” which constituted ineffective assistance in Gottsfield’s view, but the hight court today determined their decision was informed by more than a lack of preparation.
Shriver testified that he knew Bayless to be adversarial and “hard to control” on the stand. Ultimately, Shriver decided simply cross-examining Bayless “doesn’t mean that you are going to successfully examine him…”
The Supreme Court determined “no finding was made that the decision lacked ‘some reasoned basis.’”
Pandeli had also asserted ineffective assistance of counsel claims based on various alleged failures to lodge objections, including references to serial killers and presentation of his violent sexual fantasies; the alleged failure to effectively cross-examine the defendant’s brother Chris Pandeli, who was believed to have “some sort of damaging information” that may come out during lengthy questioning; and Sinclair’s in-experience as a trial attorney, which the state Supreme Court found to be irrelevant given Shriver’s extensive experience.
Likewise, the court’s opinion went on, Gottsfield was wrong to uphold Pandeli’s due process claim because he “implied the jury must be given only objectively accurate expert testimony.” Gottsfield determined “it is clear” that Pandeli suffered from a “serious mental illness” even though Bayless testified he had exaggerated during cognitive tests and simply had an antisocial personality disorder.
“The [post-conviction relief] court did not find that Dr. Bayless relied on any inaccurate facts to arrive at his opinions; the court simply disagreed with those opinions,” Bolick wrote. “However, a defendant’s due process rights are not violated by a good-faith ‘battle of the experts.’”
Iler was the granddaughter of Donald W. Douglas, Sr., whose company Douglas Aircraft went on to become McDonnell Douglas. She turned to prostitution to support a drug habit, according to The Arizona Republic, and Pandeli hired her for sex. The arrangement turned violent when Pandeli was unable to perform.
Iler’s beaten body was found naked in a Phoenix alley, her throat slashed and breasts mutilated.
Pandeli was also convicted for the 1992 murder and mutilation of another prostitute, Teresa Humphreys. For that, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.