WASHINGTON -- An enlisted Marine who was convicted nearly two decades ago of two killings in North Carolina now will live out his life in prison, after a military appeals court overturned his death sentence this week.
Citing "numerous" problems in the original trial of former Lance Cpl. Kenneth G. Parker, the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed some charges and resentenced Parker to life in prison. Since 1995, he's been the only Marine on the military's small death row.
"We have upset aspects of this verdict and will set aside the death penalty due to numerous and substantive procedural and legal failures at trial," Judge J.A. Maksym noted. "Yet no error by the trial judge below should distract us from the overwhelming evidence of guilt."
The court threw out Parker's conviction for one of the two murders and reassessed his sentence for the other crime. The decision continues a trend of military death sentences being overturned on appeal -- 11 out of 16 death sentences since 1984. The last military execution occurred in 1961.
Jennifer Zeldis, a spokeswoman for the Navy's Office of the Judge Advocate General, said late Thursday afternoon that officials were considering whether to seek further review of the case.
One of Parker's appellate attorneys declined Thursday to discuss the case and referred questions to another appellate attorney, who was unavailable.
The ruling the three-member court quietly issued Tuesday caps a long and tortuous legal drama with beginnings in a Camp Lejeune barracks.
As recounted in the appellate court's 62-page decision, Parker was one of six African-American Marines who were drinking alcohol and discussing race relations on the night of March 26, 1992. A rumor was circulating that Caucasian Marines had attempted to lynch an African-American on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Parker and his compatriots vowed revenge.
"We are going to get us a white boy tonight," one of the African-American Marines said, according to subsequent testimony.
The six Marines armed themselves with a 12-gauge shotgun and an additional 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and in two cars drove to nearby Jacksonville, N.C. After prowling about, they came upon Rodney Page, a lance corporal, and took his wallet in an alleyway. Parker assured Page he wouldn't be killed, and Parker turned as if to walk away.
Then he turned around again and shot Page in the upper abdomen. The Marines fled, with Parker subsequently bragging to others about how Page had begged for his life.
In a separate incident several nights later, Parker allegedly joined a fellow Marine in using the same shotgun to kill the husband of a woman with whom the other Marine, Wade Walker, was having an affair.
Parker's "premeditated murder of Lance Cpl. Page, his fellow Marine, was carried out with chilling callousness and depravity," Maksym noted, adding that "this was truly a heinous killing" for which a death sentence would have been justified had the trial been without error.
Parker has a lower-than-average IQ that's been variously tested at between 74 and 92. But the appellate court rejected defense arguments that the low IQ, combined with serious intoxication, made Parker incapable of forming criminal intent.
The judicially fatal errors, though, began with the trial judge's initial decision not to hold separate trials for the two murders or at least to warn the jury about not letting one allegation "spill over" onto another, the appellate court concluded. This was a particular problem, Maksym said, because the "circumstantial" evidence against Parker for the second killing was considerably weaker than the strong case against him for the killing of Page.
While the appellate court judges found strong evidence that Parker was with Walker on the night of the second murder, they said, "We are not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt" that Parker participated in the murder. The appellate court threw out Parker's conviction for the second murder.
The appellate court further found problems with secondhand trial testimony that Parker had professed an "infatuation with drive-by shootings" and had admitted to participating in some while he was in Philadelphia. Maksym called this irrelevant but "highly inflammatory evidence" that might have prejudiced jurors.
"There can be no question that the government exploited the openings offered by the trial judge's rulings," Maksym observed.
Walker also was originally sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life in prison. He and Parker will remain at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.