State Supreme Court overturns death sentence against Robert Langley for fourth time

State Supreme Court overturns death sentence against Robert Langley

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Oregon Supreme Court for the fourth time has overturned a death sentence for Robert Paul Langley Jr., finding that a judge should not have forced the convicted murderer to represent himself before jurors determining his punishment.

The decision marks the latest setback for prosecutors who have pressed to execute Langley -- and persuaded four juries to hand down Oregon's harshest sentence -- over more than two decades.

Langley, 52, is one of the longest-serving inmates on Oregon's death row, joining the group after juries sentenced him to death for two separate murders, both prosecuted in 1989.

But since then, one death sentence has been converted to a life sentence with a minimum of 30 years in prison. The other has been turned away three times by the state Supreme Court.

Marion County Deputy District Attorney Matt Kemmy, who secured the latest death sentence against Langley, said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision.

"I would absolutely expect we would seek death" again, he said. "We will continue to do what we have always felt was right in regards to Mr. Langley."

Langley's two victims were discovered around the same time he was living at the Oregon State Hospital, where he took part in a program for mentally and emotionally disabled prison inmates. He was arrested for the 1988 murder of a former prison friend, Larry Richard Rockenbrant, whose body was found underneath a cactus garden on the hospital grounds. Rockenbrant had been beaten with a baseball bat.

The grisly discovery led Langley's aunt to contact police and tell them about a hole Langley had dug in her backyard several months earlier. There, police discovered the decomposed corpse of Anne Louise Gray. Langley had duct-taped her mouth and nose, suffocating her, and watched her die, prosecutors said.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the Supreme Court laid out the history that led to the latest reversal.

Langley, facing a January 2003 resentencing trial for Gray's murder, had gone through multiple lawyers as the date approached. The changes contributed to a delay in the proceeding until October 2005.

Less than four months before the trial was to begin, Langley's attorneys said they had too many conflicts with Langley to continue representing him. Although Marion County Circuit Judge Joseph Ochoa allowed one to be removed, he told Langley that he must either cooperate with the remaining attorney or represent himself.

Langley, Ochoa wrote at the time, had gone through seven defense attorneys in five years and "has demonstrated an undeniable pattern of manipulation. The defendant has cooperated with defense attorneys only as long as they were willing and able to obtain continuances of trial dates."

But Langley said he did not want to choose either option, the court wrote. At the resentencing trial, he appeared in his white prison jumpsuit and failed to mount a defense. He did not deliver an opening statement or closing argument and did not cross-examine witnesses, the court wrote.

The jury delivered a death sentence after less than 20 minutes of deliberation.

Experts at the time theorized he may have been laying the groundwork for yet another reversal.

In overturning the sentence, the Supreme Court rejected the state's arguments that Langley's behavior left the circuit judge no option but to find that Langley had waived his right to counsel and should represent himself. It also found that the judge had not adequately considered Langley's objections to his lawyers before presenting him with the choice of cooperating or representing himself.

Langley's legal saga began with his aggravated murder convictions and death sentences in both slayings in 1989.

In 1992, the Supreme Court threw out the original death sentence for Gray's murder because jurors weren't sufficiently instructed to consider mitigating evidence in determining Langley's punishment.

The Supreme Court in 1992 also reversed the conviction in the Rockenbrant case because evidence from Gray's murder should not have been introduced into the Rockenbrant trial. Five years later, in an abbreviated retrial in which both the prosecution and defense agreed to facts, a judge found him guilty of aggravated murder and gave him a life sentence with a minimum of 30 years.

Langley faced resentencing in the Gray case in 1994. A jury again delivered a death sentence, but the Supreme Court in 2000 found that the judge improperly instructed jurors that they could only choose death or life in prison with the possibility of parole as punishments. The jurors should have been allowed to consider life in prison without the possibility of parole, the high court ruled in overturning the death sentence.

The decision set up the 2005 resentencing trial. A jury sentenced him to death -- the verdict was thrown out Thursday.

By Helen Jung, The OregonianThe Oregonian
© 2012 All rights reserved.



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