As Michael Dale St. Clair awaits his fate on a murder charge in New Mexico, justices on the Kentucky Supreme Court are weighing his conviction and death sentence in a 1991 slaying in central Kentucky.
On Thursday morning in Frankfort, the seven justices heard oral arguments focused on whether jurors were improperly presented with too much information about St. Clair’s misdeeds and alleged crimes before he was charged with kidnapping and killing distillery worker Frank Brady of Bardstown in 1991.
Justices zeroed in on whether jurors should have been told about St. Clair’s two murder convictions in Oklahoma, where he escaped from prison in 1991, and the death of 22-year-old paramedic Timothy Keeling in New Mexico.
“You don’t go into the gory details of all the priors,” Justice Mary Noble said. “It seems to me we limit the details of priors.”
The justices did not indicate when they would rule. The court is scheduled to hear a related capital kidnapping case from Hardin County involving St. Clair in March.
St. Clair, 57, and fellow inmate Dennis Gene Reese, 54, broke out of the county jail in Durant, Okla., on Sept. 19, 1991. At the time, St. Clair was serving life sentences for murder and Reese was awaiting trial on charges of strangling and beating a woman to death.
At the time of the escape, St. Clair was awaiting transfer to prison after being convicted of the murders of his uncle, Ronnie Lee St. Clair, and William Henry Kelsey Jr., the man he had hired to kill his uncle.
Prosecutors say the men went on a cross-country crime spree that took them through Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana and Tennessee before their run ended in Kentucky.
While in Denver, prosecutors say, St. Clair and Reese posed as buyers interested in purchasing Keeling’s truck, then kidnapped him. Reese drove as Keeling sat next to him and St. Clair held a .357 magnum revolver in the passenger seat. They stopped near Clayton, N.M., a small crossroads town, where prosecutors say St. Clair ordered Keeling out of the truck and shot him. Jurors were also told about the criminal history of Michael St. Clair’s family, which includes drug dealing, assaults and killings in Oklahoma.
At the time of his last conviction in Kentucky in 2012, St. Clair had not been charged with Keeling’s death. He has since been indicted in New Mexico and is awaiting trial there in September.
St. Clair’s attorney, Samuel N. Potter, told the justices that jurors should not have been told about St. Clair’s convictions in Oklahoma or a case in New Mexico before they retired to consider his client’s fate.
“The death penalty must be meted out for the particular crime,” Potter told the justices. “When the jury heard all this information about family killings and drug killings in Oklahoma, the jury brings that with them into the jury room. It no longer became about the victim.”
Justice Bill Cunningham noted that, in prior retrials, jurors heard details about other crimes St. Clair had been convicted of.
“Did he deny that he did those crimes?” Cunningham asked.
“He said he had been found guilty, but he did not go into details about the offenses,” Potter said. “He admitted he escaped the jail.”
Assistant Attorney General Robert Long told the justices that, given “the overwhelming evidence of his guilt,” St. Clair’s convictions should be upheld even if jurors heard about prior crimes. Long added that at a resentencing, a defendants prior behavior is relevant because jurors are being asked to consider the character of the man before deciding whether to recommend death.
“You can’t do resentencing in a vacuum,” Long said.
- Staff reports contributed to this story