Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New jury to weigh death penalty for child killer


After years of legal wrangling, jury selection began Monday for the second sentencing hearing for Howard Steven Ault -- convicted almost a decade ago of killing two young girls and hiding their bodies in his Fort Lauderdale attic.
Ault, who was originally sentenced to die for the crime, appealed, and in 2003, the Florida Supreme Court vacated his sentence because of a mistake during the original jury selection.

Now a new jury will be asked to decide whether to sentence Ault to life in prison or death by lethal injection.

Broward Judge Marc Gold -- who presided over the trial in 1999 -- told prospective jurors that Ault, now 41, had been convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, and other charges including sexual battery and aggravated child abuse.

Gold explained that the mission of the jury is not to review whether Ault is guilty of the crime -- but rather, how he should be punished.

''The punishment for this crime is either death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,'' Gold told a pool of about 50 prospective jurors.

Gold said he planned to complete the jury selection this week. The trial is scheduled to start Aug. 13.

On Monday, prospective jurors were asked if they had heard about the case and their views on the death penalty.

Ault, dressed a button-down shirt in front of prospective jurors, stared blankly through much of the proceedings. Before anyone from the jury pool had entered the courtroom, Ault's attorney, Mitchell Polay, told the judge that his client was on suicide watch at the Broward jail.

The murders of the two girls -- straight-A students who had been homeless, living with their mother at a campsite in Oakland Park -- made national headlines, raising fears about child safety and questions about how Ault, a convicted sexual predator, was able to continue assault young victims.

On Nov. 4, 1996, Ault lured DeAnn Mu'min, 11, and her 7-year-old sister, Alicia Jones, into his truck, offering them a ride home from school.

Instead, he took them to his apartment, where he raped DeAnn while Alicia watched helplessly, then strangled them both.

In vacating the death sentence, the Supreme Court ruled that a prospective juror who stated she was opposed to the death penalty should not have been dismissed. The woman said she would be able to sentence someone to death if the law required it.

The death penalty has been in limbo in Florida, however, since a botched lethal injection in December.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush impaneled a committee to investigate the execution of Angel Nieves Diaz, who took 34 minutes to die after the injection.

State prison officials have since revamped execution procedures and say they are ready to resume executions.

Gov. Charlie Crist signed a death warrant for Mark Dean Schwab -- his first death warrant since the state halted the procedure.

Despite Crist's death warrant, there is an ongoing legal challenge on behalf of Death Row inmates that could halt Schwab's execution.

Neal Dupree, the attorney who heads the South Florida state office that handles appeals for Death Row inmates, said that even if a jury decides Ault should be executed, his case will not be immediately impacted by current attempts to fix the lethal injection process.

''They've got the direct appeal process,'' Dupree said. ``The post-conviction process, the federal appeals. Hopefully by then, the department will have fixed it's protocols.

``The process before a governor would sign a warrant will take several years.''

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