Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against an Oak Ridge grandmother charged with first-degree murder in the death of her toddler granddaughter seven years ago.
Announcing the decision, prosecutors cited mental health issues, expense, and the strain put on the local court system in death penalty cases.
The state filed a withdrawal notice, announcing it would not seek the death penalty, in Anderson County Criminal Court in Clinton on March 16. The withdrawal notice has not been previously reported.
Representing the state, District Attorney General Dave Clark of the Seventh Judicial District in Anderson County had announced in November 2012 that the state would seek the death penalty against Valerie Stenson, who is now 53, in the death of her granddaughter, Manhattan Inman, who was 18 months old when she died April 17, 2011.
In the 2012 death penalty notice, Clark said there were aggravating circumstances in the case. They included:
- The alleged murder was committed against someone younger than 12 by someone older than 18.
- It was alleged to be especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel “in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death.”
- The alleged murder was committed while the defendant (Stenson) was committing, was an accomplice to, was attempting to commit, or was fleeing after committing or attempting to commit another serious crime.
Since then, though, several issues have arisen that “cause the state to take the position that the penalty of life in prison is appropriate,” the state said in the withdrawal notice filed in March.
“The state is confident that the defendant’s mental condition is such that she can assist her counsel in her defense,” the notice said. “Also, the state is of the position that she was not suffering from a mental disease or defect at the time of the offense. However, there is no question that the defendant has some mental health issues. As such, the state feels that a reviewing state or federal court may be hesitant to affirm a punishment of death.”
The notice said that seeking the death penalty is a very laborious process that puts a “great deal of strain” on the local court system. It’s also very expensive and costly to the county, the notice said.
“Several days are consumed with the jury selection process and the sequestration of the jury,” the notice said. “With a life sentence being the outcome upon a conviction of first degree murder, the District Attorney’s Office is hesitant to put that cost and extra-judicial burden on the county and local court.”
If Stenson were convicted, a life sentence would carry a minimum 51-year prison sentence, the notice said.
“Considering the defendant’s age and physical health, that is a death penalty,” the notice said. If Stenson were convicted of first degree murder, she would likely die before the death penalty would be carried out, the notice said.
“Because of these and other factors, the state submits that a sentence of life in prison is just as effective as the death penalty, without the undue cost and burden on the local court system,” the notice said.
Court orders filed in August and October called for a psychiatric evaluation of Stenson and a referral to Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga, where experts can determine her competency to stand trial and her mental condition at the time of the crime (the insanity defense).
An evaluation of competency to stand trial would determine whether Stenson has the ability to cooperate with her attorneys in her own defense, whether she is aware of and understands the criminal proceedings, and whether she understands the consequences.
An evaluation of mental condition at the time of the crime, the insanity defense, would determine whether Stenson was unable to appreciate the nature of the alleged crimes at the time they were committed and that they were wrong.
The results of the evaluation are to be reported back to Anderson County Criminal Court. It’s not clear how long that might take. The evaluations are not public. Normally, if there is a competency issue, there would be a competency hearing, and that could be followed by a court order.
Stenson has previously been evaluated by State of Tennessee experts and determined to be competent to stand trial and to help with her defense, according to court records.
But the August order said a psychologist employed by Stenson was unable to complete an evaluation “due to the agitated state and mental health of the defendant. The expert did determine that the defendant is paranoid, delusional, and terrified, and when asking general questions about her case, the defendant began speaking in tongues and was unable to answer any questions from that point on or participate in the evaluation.”
The October order said Ridgeview Psychiatric Hospital in Oak Ridge had referred Stenson to the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga for a maximum of 30 days.
Stenson’s granddaughter, Manhattan, was found dead in a home on Teller Village Lane on April 17, 2011. The Anderson County Grand Jury indicted Stenson for first-degree murder and four counts of aggravated child abuse and neglect on March 6, 2012.
The next year, she was indicted on nine counts of aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, and aggravated child endangerment in cases involving three other children. Those charges were filed September 3, 2013. They included three counts each of aggravated child abuse, aggravated child neglect, and aggravated child endangerment.
Those offenses allegedly occurred between April 15, 2010, and April 15, 2011, and all three victims were under 18, the indictments said. The indictments said the abuse caused serious bodily injury to the children, or caused injury and the abuse was “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel, or involved the affliction of torture.”
The last death-penalty case in Anderson County was in May 2016. In that case, Norman Lee Follis Jr. was convicted of first-degree murder for killing his uncle, Samuel “Sammie” J. Adams, 79, sometime in mid-December 2011. Adams’ decomposing body was found buried under at least 10 blankets in a closet underneath a staircase at his apartment on Patt Lane in Claxton on January 24, 2012. A couch was shoved against the closet door. Adams had been reported missing. He died of strangulation.
A jury sentenced Follis to life without parole but did not sentence him to death, although jurors said prosecutors had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing of Adams was especially, heinous, atrocious, or cruel, and that Adams was 70 or older, two of the four aggravating factors the jury was able to consider.
That was reported to be the first death penalty trial in Anderson County since 1991, according to defense attorney Mart Cizek, who represented Follis and was, at the time, one of only three defense attorneys in Anderson County qualified to handle death penalty cases.
Cizek, lead counsel in the death penalty case against Stenson, was relieved from her case two months ago. Stenson is no longer entitled to two attorneys since the state has withdrawn its death penalty notice, Anderson County Criminal Court Judge Donald R. Elledge said in an order filed May 4. Also, Cizek was recently hired by the Public Defenders Office in the Ninth Judicial District, Elledge said. The Ninth Judicial District serves Loudon, Meigs, Morgan, and Roane counties.
Tom Slaughter, co-counsel on the case, will be Stenson’s attorney, Elledge said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Most news stories on Oak Ridge Today are free, brought to you by Oak Ridge Today with help from our advertisers, contributors, and subscribers. This is a free story. Thank you to our advertisers, contributors, and subscribers.
Do you appreciate this story or our work in general? If so, please consider a monthly subscription to Oak Ridge Today. See our Subscribe page here. Thank you for reading Oak Ridge Today.
Copyright 2018 Oak Ridge Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.