Thursday, October 25, 2007

Long, winding legal trek ends on Death Row

Howard Steven Ault, left, sits with his attorney Mitchell B. Polay, as they listen to Judge Marc Gold read his sentence at Broward County Courthouse on Wednesday.


Decorum held. A killer with wretched credentials was sentenced to death Wednesday, and the restraint in the courtroom was nearly heroic.

The cameras in the courtroom might have captured something in the judge's expression. A tightness in the face, like stifled anger. But Judge Marc Gold spoke in careful, controlled tones. TV crews and newspaper photographers and reporters were recording his words, but the Broward circuit judge passed on the opportunity for theatrics.

He read a few paragraphs from his sentencing order. That was enough.

Section Six recounted how Howard Steven Ault sexually abused 11-year-old DeAnn Mu'min, then ``placed his hands around DeAnn's neck and squeezed the life out of her. There is no question that DeAnn was fully aware of what was happening. Her anxiety and fear cannot be put into words.

``Having murdered DeAnn, the defendant contemplated his next move. He chose to smoke a cigarette. After finishing his cigarette, he placed the terrified 7-year-old child, Alicia Jones, on the floor, wrapped his hands around her neck and strangled her.''


This case has haunted Broward County for 11 years, although Ault, who had been on probation for child sexual battery, had confessed to police a few days after the murders. And he kept confessing, in letters and phone calls, to any reporter with the stomach to listen.

But years were wasted as he fired his lawyer and represented himself, then switched back to another another lawyer and fired him, and . . . finally, in 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to death. But appeals brought the case back to Broward Circuit Court this summer for yet another sentencing hearing and a reprise of those grisly details.

Wednesday's death sentence was utterly inevitable. Ault's only realistic chance at avoiding the death penalty rested on the unlikely possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court might outlaw capital punishment. Otherwise, these killings more than met the legal requirement for a death sentence: ''especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.'' These killings, Judge Gold pointed out, ''set the standard'' for heinous, atrocious and cruel.

Ault, head shaved, wearing a fresh yellow shirt, gleaming white sneakers and steel manacles, sat in the jury box as the judge read the sentencing order. The killer had no reaction as the judge described the murders, a description based on Ault's own recollections. He declined the judge's offer to make a statement. And the judge sentenced him to die.


Then, as if Gold had finally reached the end of his patience, he told the bailiff, ``Take this man out of here.''

Afterward, prosecutor Tim Donnelly sat alone on the back row. He looked a little tired. ''Tired's not the word,'' he said, searching for a phrase that describes these past 11 years. ``It's been a long journey.''

He sighed. ''People think when they hear a verdict that it's over.'' But years' worth of appeals will follow. Donnelly, who was 39 when the case started, could be in his 60s before Ault is escorted into the execution chamber.

The confessed killer had driven prosecutors, judges, his own lawyers and an outraged public to distraction with years of erratic maneuvers. But the slow, careful, patient, evenhanded treatment afforded Ault says something about a community's allegiance to the legal process.

Even a confessed child-killer gets justice. Even after 11 years, decorum held.

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