CHICAGO – A federal appeals court has concluded that a Champaign man convicted in 1994 of murdering his wife deserves a new trial in state court.
In a decision issued earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit agreed with U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey that James Ward had not knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to testify at his August 1996 trial in Champaign County Circuit Court. That was the sole issue on appeal in the federal court.
Ward, now 39, was found to be guilty but mentally ill, of the Sept. 9, 1994, stabbing death of his wife, Evelyn Ward, 39. She was stabbed more than 20 times at the East Park Street home in Champaign that she shared with Ward.
A Champaign County judge later sentenced Ward to 40 years in prison. Because truth-in-sentencing legislation was later found to be constitutionally invalid at the time of the case, Ward is currently able to earn credit for good time and is scheduled to be paroled in 2014, another nine years.
The ruling from the federal appeals court affirms a decision issued in June 2002 by McCuskey in which McCuskey found there to be "unreasonable application of clearly established federal law" in the state appellate court's conclusion that Ward correctly waived his right to testify.
According to testimony at his trial, Ward suffered a brain injury in December 1993 that left him mentally diminished. He had also been struck in the head with a chair hours before he stabbed his wife.
At Ward's trial, now-retired Champaign County Judge Harold Jensen asked Ward if he agreed with his lawyer, Art Lerner, that he should not testify. Ward eventually responded, "I guess. I don't know."
Immediately after trial, however, Ward asked Lerner why he had not been allowed to testify. Lerner then filed a post-trial motion alleging that Ward had not validly waived his right to testify, because he had not understood Lerner's advice.
Jensen denied the post-trial motion and in 1998, the 4th District Appellate Court also rejected Ward's challenges and affirmed his conviction. The Illinois Supreme Court in June 1999 denied his request to appeal.
That's when Ward took his case to the federal courts.
The federal appeals court said it was "unreasonable error" for the state appeals court to conclude that Ward made a knowing and intelligent waiver of his right to testify.
"The uncontroverted trial testimony was that Ward's brain injuries severely disrupted his ability to think, reason, take in verbal information, and understand and use language to express his understanding.
"Although Ward was deemed competent to stand trial, his fitness report cautioned that to overcome this severe language-processing deficit, one must expend an inordinate amount of patience with Ward. Simply put, the trial court did not exercise that level of extraordinary patience in extracting Ward's purported waiver," the federal appeals court opinion said.
Assistant State's Attorney Bill Gaston, who is handling the retrial, said the state has until the end of November to commence its second prosecution of Ward but it's possible it may not be completed this year.
"We'll have to find out what his current condition is. It's my understanding he may have deteriorated. He may not even be fit to stand trial," Gaston said, noting that it took more than a year for Ward to attain fitness to face his first trial.
Should he be convicted of murder, Ward would have to serve 100 percent of whatever sentence he would receive. He's currently serving his sentence in a mental ward at the Dixon Correctional Center.
You can reach Mary Schenk at (217) 351-5313 or via e-mail at email@example.com.