Sunday, July 29, 2007

Ault Death Sentence Vacated by Court

Nov 6, 2003 6:01 pm US/Eastern

The Florida Supreme Court overturned death sentences given to a convicted pedophile who confessed to strangling two young sisters in Broward County in 1996.

The high court ruled in Thursday's unanimous opinion that a potential juror who opposed capital punishment was wrongly dismissed.

The decision came in the appeal of Howard Steven Ault, who killed 11-year-old DeAnn Mu'min and her 7-year-old sister, Alicia Jones, after raping one of them.

The murders led to a new state law expanding public access to information on convicted sexual predators.

Ault, 37, will get a new sentencing hearing on his two murder convictions. The decision does not affect the life prison term he is serving for another conviction in the case, sexual battery on a child under 12.

Ault was on supervised community release for a 1988 sex crime when he befriended the girls' mother and picked the children up from school one day, promising them candy.

He confessed two days later and told police the would find the girls' bodies amid the clutter of his attic.

In Thursday's unsigned opinion, the court wrote that the trial judge made a significant error by dismissing a juror who said she was against capital punishment but would be able to set aside her personal views.

``Prospective jurors may not be excused ... simply because they voice general objections to the death penalty,'' the unsigned opinion reads.

The key test, the high court added, is whether the juror would be able to set aside personal views and act impartially as required by the law. In a capital case, that means being able to recommend a death sentence if aggravating factors in a case outweigh mitigating circumstances.

In the Ault case, the juror said that she could ``be fair in the guilt and penalty phases even thought she opposed the death penalty,'' the Supreme Court wrote.

Lawyers on the case didn't return Thursday afternoon phone calls.

A 1997 law passed in reaction to the murders provided several new measures, such as a toll-free number to find out information on sexual offenders. Photos of offenders are provided on request.

The law also combined resources of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the state Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in keeping track of sexual offenders and predators.

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