Budget fight delays justice for mother of slain girl Pamela Butler

Kansas City StarJune 10, 2013 

The sequester-driven budget fight in Washington has become infuriating and real for Cherri West.

It probably is keeping her daughter’s killer alive longer than she wants.

West learned from federal prosecutors last week that death penalty appeals for Keith D. Nelson — who killed her 10-year-old daughter, Pamela Butler, in 1999 — have ground to a halt because his federally funded lawyers don’t have the money to pay for travel and witness fees for a critical hearing in July.

Chief U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. recently canceled the hearing, citing “unanticipated budgetary issues.”

But West blames federal lawmakers.

“They can’t do their job to do a budget,” West said. “What is the problem? They get their paychecks and their raises, but they can’t do something for someone else?”

West said she is confident that prosecutors would have prevailed at the hearing, which then could have moved Nelson several steps closer to the death chamber at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

“I’ll help the defense out,” West said. “If they want me to get a fundraiser together to help them get their witnesses in, I’ll do that.”

Nelson’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to speak about the situation in detail but confirmed that the problem did not arise in his office.

“This is not an issue on our part,” said Don Ledford, the spokesman. “We are prepared to move forward.”

Gaitan has scheduled a status conference for Oct. 3, just after the start of the federal government’s new fiscal year, when more money might be available.

Pamela’s kidnapping and murder prompted one of the largest manhunts in Kansas City history.

Nelson kidnapped Pamela as she roller-skated near her Kansas City, Kan., home on Oct. 12, 1999. He stuffed her into the cab of a pickup, drove east into Missouri and stopped in the parking lot of a Grain Valley church. After dragging her into a densely wooded area, Nelson beat her and strangled her with brown speaker wire.

Officers arrested him two days later on the bank of the Kansas River.

Nelson’s appeals began just after Gaitan sentenced him to death in March 2002. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn his sentence in November 2004. That opened a second round of appeals, permitting Nelson and a new set of lawyers to argue that the lawyers who represented him at trial and in his first appeal had been ineffective.

In October 2008, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned the case to Kansas City, asking the judge to conduct a hearing and rule on whether Nelson’s lawyers had investigated the case properly, raised the necessary objections and done everything possible to explore mental health issues.

Since then, Nelson’s lawyers have reviewed the case in minute detail. As the hearing approached, defense lawyers filed a 16-person witness list that included one medical doctor and five other experts with doctoral degrees.

The federal sequester has forced deep cuts in funds to pay for the defense of poor people charged with federal crimes and has roiled courthouses across the country. Some public defender offices have gone to four-day workweeks to save money.

Jurors at a recent long-running fraud trial in Kansas City could hear evidence only four days a week, instead of five, because a federal public defender was furloughed on Fridays.

Early last month the longtime federal defender in Kansas City announced his retirement, saying that his salary and that of another retiree would take pressure off his 35-person staff and cover the budget shortfall.

And money also is growing scarce to pay private lawyers to represent defendants when the public defender’s office cannot.

The federal courts recently asked Congress for an emergency appropriation of $41.4 million to help cover a $51 million shortfall in federal defender service budgets nationwide.

Long delays in federal death penalty cases are routine. Only three inmates have been executed since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988, and 59 are awaiting execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

But West said that’s no excuse for politicians to feed into the delay that many death row inmates crave, compounding the heartache that crime victims and their families feel every day.

“I want Pammy’s supporters to call Congress and get this taken care of,” West said.

“This has gone on long enough.”

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