Jury rejects death penalty

Henning attorney Gary Mitchell is seen responding to a question from Mark Horner following Tuesday's sentencing verdict. This is a photograph of a television monitor.
Henning attorney Gary Mitchell is seen responding to a question from Mark Horner following Tuesday’s sentencing verdict. This is a photograph of a television monitor.

(Albuquerque) As Linda Henning began her walk out of the courtroom late Tuesday afternoon, I asked her if she cared to make a statement about the decision just handed-down by the jury in her murder trial. The jury of 12 men and women unanimously rejected the death penalty, declaring that the aggravating circumstances necessary to execute the defendant were not present.

As Henning approached the narrow door along the north side of the courtroom where she has made her exit so many times before, a slight, inquisitive smile appeared on her face as she listened to my question. She replied, “I found it very interesting what they (the jury) had to say at the end of the day. Pretty interesting, isn’t it? Makes you wonder; what did I do?”

Moments later, Henning’s attorney said his client makes a good point. “It still harkens back to what I said Friday,” stated Gary Mitchell, “(that) this is a bizarre verdict because now we have a 180-degree opposite decision, where they found–unanimously–that the state did not prove an aggravated circumstance on kidnapping.”

The jury had been instructed that it could only sentence Henning to death if it determined that aggravating circumstances in the case outweighed mitigating circumstances.

Examples of mitigating circumstances include the defendant’s criminal history (Henning had no such history prior to the this case) and questions such as “Can the defendant be rehabilitated?” “Did she act under duress or the dominion of another person?”

Lead prosecutor Paul Spiers strongly disagreed with Mitchell’s assessment of the jury’s decision to reject the death penalty. “I do not see any inconsistency and I’m perfectly satisfied with the result,” said Spiers. “I think it was fair and proportionate.”

Spiers said he was not surprised that the jury rejected the death penalty. “It did not come as a surprise to me because the elements at the sentencing phase for finding the aggravated circumstance of the murder in a commission of a kidnapping are different and distinct from the elements they (jurors) were given at the merits phase of the trial, which is the verdict of guilt or innocence,” said Spiers.

Say what you want about the sentencing verdict, there’s no debating the jury wasted little time arriving at its conclusion. Deliberations lasted just a little more than 30-minutes.

The day actually started with a late motion filed by Mitchell. He asked the judge to preclude the jury from considering the death penalty. Mitchell argued that, in effect, sentencing Henning to death would be double jeopardy. Chief Judge W. John Brennan denied Mitchell’s motion, but said he would later invest more time researching the basis for Mitchell’s argument.

Prosecutors had hoped for jurors to hear from the victim’s brother during Tuesday’s sentencing. Andrew Chew attempted to call the courtroom from his home in Penang, Malaysia. However, technical difficulties prevented the testimony. The Chew’s family attorney, Bryan Fox of Albuquerque, then agreed to take the stand and testify about the impact of Girly Chew Hossencofft’s death on her family. “The impact has been very severe,” stated Fox.

Fox shared his memories of Andrew Chew’s first visit to Albuquerque in the weeks that followed Girly’s 1999 disappearance. Andrew, Fox explained, had the task of removing everything from Girly’s apartment, and donated some of the items to charity. Once emptied, Andrew returned to the apartment and stuck some incense into the surrounding ground, said Fox. He shared that Andrew lit the incense and some red strips of paper, explaining that it was part of a Buddhist ceremony. The smoke from the incense and paper symbolized Girly’s spirit being released into the next world.

But it was not the perfect ceremony. Fox explained that Andrew told him “that the ceremony needed to take place where Girly was killed.” While Girly was kidnapped from her apartment, investigators do not know where she was killed. They suspect it was in the sparsely populated and wide-open desert west of Magdalena. At night.

When Andrew Chew arrived in 1999, he hoped to return to Malaysia with his sister’s cremated remains. The family wants to take the ashes to a Buddhist temple. However, Girly’s remains have never been found.

Linda Henning returns to court Thursday morning at 8:30. At that time, Judge Brennan will impose Henning’s final sentence for Girly’s murder, kidnapping and several other convictions.

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