Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jason Wheeler case heads to Supreme Court

STEPHEN HUDAK | Sentinel Staff Writer

5:15 PM EDT, October 6, 2008

TAVARES - A public defender will attempt to persuade the Florida Supreme Court Tuesday that Jason Wheeler did not receive a fair trial or sentence for killing Lake County Deputy Sheriff Wayne Koester in an armed ambush.

Wheeler, 33, sentenced to death in the Feb. 9, 2005, slaying, will not attend the hearing scheduled for 9:40 a.m. Tuesday in Tallahassee, but Koester's widow, Ashley Koester, will.

"I just want to see it through," said Ashley Koester, now 35 and a deputy sheriff in Volusia County. "I want to make sure the truth is told and the sentence is carried out."

She said she will be wearing a sheriff's badge bearing a black ribbon, a gift from the late Lake County Sheriff Chris Daniels that honors her husband's sacrifice.

Wheeler, confined to a death-row cell at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford that accommodates his wheelchair, was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing and two counts of attempted first-degree murder for wounding deputies Tom McKane and William Crotty. The lawmen were investigating a sexual-assault complaint filed by Wheeler's girlfriend, Sarah Heckerman. Wheeler was paralyzed when shot during his capture by a pursuing deputy.

Court filings show Public Defender James S. Purdy, who handles death-penalty appeals, will argue that Lake Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson should have given the jury a special instruction outlining the "heat of passion" defense and should have limited "prejudicial" closing remarks by State Attorney Brad King.

Purdy also complained in written arguments that Johnson allowed excessive victim-impact testimony, suggesting it unfairly persuaded the jury to vote, 10-2, to recommend death over life in prison.

Assistant State Attorney Bill Gladson, who helped prosecute Wheeler, also plans to attend the proceedings scheduled for live broadcast over the Internet (http://wfsu.org/gavel2gavel) and slated to feature the arguments of Senior Assistant Attorney General Kenneth S. Nunnelly.

In a written rebuttal, Nunnelly refuted Wheeler's arguments, suggesting the Paisley man acted with premeditation - not the "heat of passion" - when he emerged from surrounding woods and ambushed the lawmen.

The state's defense of the verdict and sentence include reference to a conversation between Wheeler and deputy Rick Brown, who was assigned to guard Wheeler while he recovered from his wounds at Orlando Regional Medical Center. In the secretly recorded chat, Wheeler confided to Brown that he had a choice when he saw the deputies arrive.

"I could either run or I could go out in a blaze of glory," Brown said.

Wheeler's case is one of seven death-penalty appeals that will be heard this week by the state's high court.

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