LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A western Kentucky man convicted of raping and murdering an honor student had his death sentence overturned by a federal judge who said Tuesday that justice demands a new hearing even though there's no doubt about the brutality of the crime.
U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell sent 34-year-old Robert Keith Woodall's case back to state court for re-sentencing. Russell found that the state judge improperly instructed the jury before sentencing and denied Woodall a chance to object to a black juror being dismissed.
"The crimes Woodall admitted to committing are revolting and despicable," Russell wrote in a 92-page ruling. "There is also no question that the victim and her family deserve justice. However, ours is a system of law that is concerned with justice for both the victim and the accused."
Woodall in 1998 pleaded guilty to killing 16-year-old Sarah Hansen after abducting her from a convenience store in Greenville in western Kentucky. A jury sentenced him to death for the murder plea and life in prison for kidnapping and rape.
Hansen, a member of the National Honor Society, vanished on Jan. 25, 1997, after going to the store to rent a movie with plans to return home and watch it with her boyfriend. About two hours later, police began searching for Hansen before finding the minivan she was driving at Luzerne Lake, about a mile and a half from the store.
Officers followed a 500-foot long blood trail from the van to the lake, where they found Hansen's unclothed body floating and her throat slashed. DNA, fingerprints and footprints led to Woodall. His case was later moved to Caldwell County because of pretrial publicity.
Russell's decision rapped the state court judge for failing to properly instruct the jurors on how to consider Woodall's decision not to testify at the sentencing hearing. Russell also found that the court should have held a hearing after prosecutors used a challenge to excuse the lone black person remaining in the jury pool.
Under federal law, it is impermissible to eliminate minorities from a jury pool, regardless of the race of the defendant.
Allison Gardner Martin, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Attorney General's Office, said prosecutors have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling.
"There is no question a bout Robert Keith Woodall's guilt in this case," Martin said.
Ralph Vick, the commonwealth attorney whose office prosecuted Woodall, also declined comment.
Woodall's attorney, David Harshaw, said the ruling wasn't a surprise. Depending upon appeals, it could be some time before Woodall returns to court for resentencing, he said.
"We could be talking a period of years," Harshaw said. "It's difficult to say."