Killer of five, sentenced to death in 2008, seeks new trial

A judge gave prosecutors on Wednesday until July 23 to respond to condemned killer Anthony Bell’s latest court filing that claims the Baton Rouge man was not competent to stand trial in the 2006 slaying of his wife and four in-laws, let alone represent himself at the guilt phase of the 2008 trial.

Attorneys for Bell, 33, contend he had the mind of a person under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, even though he was 25, and maintain he is brain-damaged and suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental illness.

“A death penalty case, where a defendant’s life literally is at stake, should demonstrate the best of our criminal justice system. Anthony Bell’s trial showcased the very worst,” attorneys Gary Clements, Adam Wasserman and Lindsey Cohan argue in a 307-page supplemental petition for post-conviction relief filed Jan. 6 at the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.

The petition asks state District Judge Todd Hernandez to reverse Bell’s first-degree murder convictions and death sentences and order a new trial.

Hernandez presided over Bell’s trial after finding him competent to be tried.

Bell appeared briefly in Hernandez’s courtroom Wednesday for an update on the status of his supplemental petition. East Baton Rouge Parish Assistant District Attorney Mark Dumaine, who prosecuted Bell, confirmed for the judge that the petition was mailed Dec. 31 — the deadline for filing it — and he had received it.

Dumaine said afterward there is nothing in the petition that prosecutors did not anticipate.

“We anticipated a vigorous defense. We will provide an equally vigorous response,” he promised.

Clements said outside the courtroom that an MRI exam performed in November showed Bell suffers from brain anomalies.

“He had a lot of widespread organic brain damage,” Clements said. “It affected his capacity to function in the real world every day … and make rational decisions.”

Bell’s post-conviction attorneys also allege that, because of extensive pretrial publicity, his trial should not have been held in East Baton Rouge Parish.

“Anthony’s trial was truly a travesty of justice,” they state in the petition. “Allowing Anthony to be condemned to die … would be an affront to, and make a mockery of, our criminal justice system.”

Bell was accused of fatally shooting four of his in-laws inside the Ministry of Jesus Christ Church on May 21, 2006, then kidnapping his wife, Erica Bell, from the Dallas Drive church and shooting and killing her in the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex.

Bell fired his court-appointed attorneys in February 2008 and represented himself in the guilt phase of his trial but asked Hernandez to reinstate the lawyers, Margaret Lagattuta and Greg Rome, during the penalty phase. The judge, who granted that request, also allowed the lawyers to act as Bell’s standby counsel during the guilt phase.

Bell’s former appellate attorneys, Sarah Ottinger and Blythe Taplin of the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, previously argued to the Louisiana Supreme Court that the trial was a mockery of justice because Hernandez allowed Bell to represent himself.

Assistant District Attorney Allison Rutzen, who also attended Wednesday’s court proceeding, had argued to the Supreme Court that the judge took painstaking measures to ensure Bell’s waiver of counsel was made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily.

The high court ultimately affirmed Bell’s convictions and sentences.

Clements, Wasserman and Cohan are representing Bell in the post-conviction relief stage, where defense attorneys typically seek to raise broad, constitutional issues to demonstrate that the trial was unfair.

The constitutional issues often deal with alleged improper actions of attorneys or flawed decisions by judges.

Bell’s post-conviction attorneys allege his original attorneys provided ineffective assistance at the pretrial and penalty stages of the case.

Clements is director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana in New Orleans. Wasserman and Cohan are based in New York and Austin, Texas, respectively.

Bell was found guilty on April 11, 2008, of five counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. Six days later, the same jury recommended he die by lethal injection. The panel rejected Bell’s mental illness defense.

In September 2008, Hernandez formally handed Bell five death sentences and a 50-year prison term on the attempted-murder conviction.

Bell claims Erica Bell found out he had an affair with her mother, and his wife shot and killed the four members of her own family before fatally shooting herself.

Destiny Mills, the daughter of murder victim Darlene Selvage, was 6 at the time of the shootings and was inside the church when her mother was killed. She pointed out Bell in the courtroom as being the man who shot her mother.