The Oregon Supreme Court, for the third time in two decades, has overturned a death sentence against Robert Paul Langley Jr. for a murder committed in 1987.
The decision announced Thursday sent the case back to Marion County Circuit Court for further proceedings. District Attorney Walt Beglau has not announced whether he will seek the death penalty for Langley.
Because four of the sitting justices have worked for the Oregon Department of Justice, which represents the state in death-penalty cases, they did not take part in Thursday’s decision. The three remaining justices were joined by a retired justice and a Court of Appeals judge to decide the case.
In essence, the justices decided that Langley was erroneously compelled to represent himself in court when he was sentenced to death again on Nov. 9, 2005.
Death sentences are automatically reviewed by the high court.
Langley, who now is 52, originally was tried in connection with two separate murders.
The body of Anne Gray, 39, was found buried in the backyard of Langley’s aunt in April 1988. Gray’s death dated back to Dec. 10, 1987.
On April 14, 1988, Larry Rockenbrant, 24, was killed and his body found buried in a cactus garden at Oregon State Hospital, where Langley lived while he took part in a program for mentally and emotionally disturbed prison inmates. Langley’s therapist consented to the cactus garden as a way to allow Langley to relax.
Langley was convicted of aggravated murder in separate trials in 1989 and sentenced to death.
The Supreme Court reversed the death sentences in 1992. It ruled that in Gray’s case, the jury was not allowed to hear mitigating evidence, and in Rockenbrant’s case, evidence from Gray’s murder was improperly admitted in the trial.
Langley was sentenced to death for a second time in a retrial for Gray’s murder. But in the Rockenbrant case, he was sentenced to life in prison with a 30-year minimum.
Upon appeal in 2000, the Supreme Court again reversed his death sentence, ruling that the jury failed to consider an option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After the case went through three circuit judges — Joseph Guimond, Terry Leggert and Joseph Ochoa, all now retired — Langley was sentenced to death for a third time in Marion County in 2005.
Langley had reshuffled his lawyers several times.
But the sentence came down only after Langley was required to represent himself in the proceeding without the court obtaining a valid waiver of his right to counsel. That self-representation occurred after Ochoa ruled that Langley’s other option was to accept representation by someone who Langley had complaints about — but Ochoa assumed those complaints were frivolous.
“That, too, was not a permissible choice,” said the court’s opinion, written by Justice Robert Durham.
“The record indicates that the court decided that defendant’s (Langley’s) refusal to make the offered choice entitled the court to make the choice itself in favor of compelled self-representation, rather than representation by counsel,” Durham wrote.
“That was (an) error. In our view, because submission of the choice to defendant was itself impermissible, defendant’s refusal to make the proposed choice was entirely proper. It follows that the trial court erred in requiring defendant to proceed to trial on the sentencing phase of a capital murder case without the assistance of legal counsel.”
Oregon Supreme Court read the opinion ( media release) : click here