Judge delays retrial in Iowa death penalty case

IOWA CITY – A judge has delayed an upcoming death penalty retrial for an Iowa woman charged in five 1993 drug-related slayings while prosecutors appeal rulings limiting the evidence they can present.

Angela Johnson’s retrial had been scheduled to begin June 3 in Sioux City and last several weeks. But U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett suspended it indefinitely Tuesday, after federal prosecutors said they would appeal two rulings that could make it more difficult for them to persuade jurors Johnson should be executed.

Johnson, 49, became the first woman sent to federal death row in decades after a jury gave her four death sentences following a 2005 trial for her role in the execution-style killings of three adults and two children in northern Iowa. But Bennett overturned the sentences last year after finding Johnson’s defense was inadequate and failed to present evidence about her mental state that could have convinced jurors to spare her life. Bennett did not overturn her convictions, saying she was clearly guilty.

In January, Bennett ruled the sentencing retrial would be limited to a “penalty phase” in which jurors will decide only whether Johnson should be punished with death. Bennett also ruled he will instruct jurors that, if even one of them does not want to impose the death penalty, he will sentence Johnson to life in prison without parole.

Prosecutors now plan to appeal the rulings to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cedar Rapids argue the rulings unfairly bar prosecutors from telling jurors that if Johnson is not executed, she could someday be released from prison and present a danger to the public. They note the charges theoretically carry as little as 20 years in prison, and argue it’s unfair for Bennett to guarantee Johnson a minimum sentence of life in prison before the retrial.

“Since she has been incarcerated since 2001, it is possible she could be released from prison by the middle of 2020 (or less, with good time credit),” prosecutors wrote in a recent filing.

They added that Bennett could change his mind about the life sentence after hearing new evidence or that another judge could take over the case due to illness, death, or some other circumstance. In any event, Johnson will be legally entitled to seek a sentence shorter than life in prison if jurors spare her life, they say.