LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A long-running death penalty case from eastern Kentucky is getting a kick-start from a federal judge.
U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell has set a November meeting date for prosecutors and attorneys for 54-year-old Karu Gene White to lay out a schedule for resolving his appeals, which have been pending in federal court for more than a decade.
White arrived at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville in 1980, when he was 21. Since then, he's fought his conviction in state and federal courts. Caldwell halted proceedings in his most recent federal appeal in 2002 while White sought funding in state court to test if he has a mental disability.
White killed 75-year-old Charles Gross, his wife, 74-year-old Lula Gross, and 79-year-old Sam Chaney during a February 1979 store robbery in Haddix, an Appalachian mountain community of about 2,270 people in Breathitt County.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that people with mental disabilities were ineligible for execution. White raised the claim shortly after that decision, prompting the federal appeal to be delayed while White sought funding for tests in state court.
Caldwell ruled Friday that the mental disability claim could proceed in state court while the rest of White's appeal could move forward in federal court. The judge also noted that White's case isn't anywhere near being resolved, with several years of appeals left to be pursued.
White's case has been delayed multiple times by multiple issues.
"For instance, White himself was responsible for a considerable portion of the delay when he defied a court order to participate in a mental retardation evaluation in a state run facility," Caldwell wrote. "On the other hand, the Commonwealth caused significant delay when it failed to appoint a new presiding judge for 16 months."
White's case languished in limbo after the retirement of Special Judge Gary Payne of Lexington. The state appointed a new jurist in April, after The Associated Press questioned why the case did not have an assigned judge.
White has been on death row for more than three decades — twice the average 15-year stay for a condemned inmate in Kentucky.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics lists 3,158 people on death row as of Dec. 31, 2010, the last year available. Only about 100 are as old as White's case.
White's guilt is undisputed. During his trial testimony, he admitted robbing the store and answered, "I must have," when asked whether he struck the victims. And in a legal brief filed nearly a decade ago, his own attorneys acknowledged that he participated in the robbery and the beatings.
Chaney and the Grosses lived at the store and residents knew that even if it was closed they could make an after-hours purchase simply by knocking on the back door.
At his trial, White testified that he had known the victims all his life and considered them "real good people." But he also acknowledged that he wanted their money — rumored at the time to amount to $60,000 or more in cash stored in hidden jars and wallets. The take, however, was just $7,000.
After the killings, White said he bought marijuana and went home to bed.
White has raised numerous issues over the years, including the long delay in implementing his death sentence and the fact that he was sentenced to death while one co-defendant, Chuck Fisher, received immunity in exchange for his testimony, and the other, Tommy L. Bowling, was paroled after serving just eight years of a 140-year term.
Fisher was only 16 at the time of the murders; Bowling was 17. Bowling, now 52, was convicted in Florida of nine counts of molestation and sexual battery of a child and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His current release date is in 2025.
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