Court: Should man get new sentence in murder case

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court seemed unsure Wednesday on whether it should order a new sentencing hearing for a man who confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing a 16-year-old girl in Kentucky.

The justices heard arguments over Robert Keith Woodall 's death sentence for kidnapping and killing Sarah Hansen on Jan. 25, 1997, after forcing her from a convenience store in western Kentucky. Woodall acknowledged that he raped the girl and slit her throat twice before taking her body to Luzerne Lake and throwing it in the water.

A jury sentenced him to death for the murder plea, which U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell overturned in 2009 because a judge refused to tell the jury not to draw any conclusions about his choice not to take the stand at his 1998 capital sentencing hearing.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, which the Supreme Court is now reviewing.

Without being told to not consider Woodall's silence, jurors are left to "using the right to silence as a penalty, which is the natural inclination," Woodall's lawyer, Laurence E. Komp, said. "So they're going to hold his failure to testify against him."

But when it comes to sentencing hearings, it's on the defendant to present his case on why his sentence should be reduced, said lawyer Susan Roncarti Lenz, a Kentucky assistant attorney general. "He bears the burden of proof on that and he bears the consequences from failing to meet his burden on that," she said.

Justices are expected to make a decision sometime next year.

The case is White v. Woodall, 12-794.

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