Federal Public Defenders use “abusive” litigation tactics — delay, impede, sabotage death penalty for heinous murderer

Four murder victims of Michael Ballard

Four murder victims of Michael Ballard

Michael Eric Ballard, 36, was charged in 2010 with four counts of murder for killings in Northampton, Pennsylvania, about six miles north of Allentown and 50 miles north of Philadelphia.  A neighbor had alerted police that June afternoon to a disturbance at a house where former girlfriend Denise Merhi, 39, lived with her father, Dennis Marsh, 62, and her grandfather, Alvin Marsh, 87.  Inside, police found the bodies of the three relatives as well as that of another neighbor, 53-year-old Steven Zernhelt.  Zernhelt was a Good Samaritan looking to assist the other victims.  Zernhelt had yelled over to his wife, ‘Call 911’ then went in, and never came out.

All four had been fatally stabbed–the elder Marsh’s body was found in a wheelchair facing a television, a knife wound to the neck; Merhi’s body was in the kitchen; the younger Marsh’s body was in the basement; Zernhelt’s body was just inside the front door.  At the time of the murders, Ballard had recently been paroled on a 15- to 30-year sentence for killing an Allentown man nearly two decades before.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court gave federal public defenders in Pennsylvania 40 days to respond to the now death-row inmate’s letter saying he never authorized anyone to seek review of his case in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Northampton County district attorney forwarded the letter signed by quadruple murderer Ballard to the U.S. Supreme Court, report the Legal Intelligencer, the Express-Times and the Allentown Morning Call. “It is my most ardent plea that asks now of you that the appeal filed in my behest be rejected summarily,” Ballard wrote.  The federal public defenders “are acting against my own wishes to waive my appeals.” Marc Bookman, the director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, told the Morning Call that he was not Ballard’s attorney and he would not comment on the case. The Legal Intelligencer says the unusual request is not the first time the federal public defenders’ tactics were questioned. In a concurring opinion, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald Castille accused the office of using “abusive” litigation tactics to create delay and “impede and sabotage the death penalty in Pennsylvania.” U.S. District Judge John Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania had similar criticism for the office, saying public defenders were “gaming a system and erecting roadblocks” to capital punishment in a different case that has been on the federal docket for 12 years. Bookman responded to Castille’s criticism in a May 8 letter to the editor, the Legal Intelligencer says. “This ‘gaming’ is nothing more than outstanding lawyering,” he wrote. He referred to more than 100 death sentences that were reversed because of constitutional error rather than delay tactics.

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