Venable Wins Resentencing For Last Md. Death Row Inmate

By Andrea Keckley | June 2, 2023, 8:13 PM EDT ·

A white sign with blue text is displayed at a federal prison complex

Kenneth Jamal Lighty, an inmate at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the last Maryland resident on death row, recently saw his sentence thrown out by a federal judge thanks to a team of attorneys with Venable LLP and co-counsel from several federal public defenders' offices. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

The last Maryland resident on federal death row is now awaiting resentencing for the fatal 2002 kidnapping of a Washington, D.C., police officer's son after a Venable LLP team recently helped persuade a judge to vacate his death sentence and three firearms convictions.

Kenneth Jamal Lighty was 23 in 2006 when U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte sentenced him to death for the abduction and slaying of 19-year-old Eric Larry Hayes II, the son of Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Eric L. Hayes Sr.

In addition to the death sentence he received for his conviction on a charge of kidnapping resulting in death, Lighty also received a life sentence for a related conspiracy charge and consecutive sentences totaling 35 years for each of the firearm convictions, according to court records.

Lighty, who was 19 at the time of the January 2002 kidnapping and killing, was one of three defendants convicted in the crime. The other two men received life sentences for their roles.

About five years after Lighty's sentencing, then-Venable partner Seth Rosenthal was appointed to work on the case alongside co-counsel from the federal defender's office in Delaware.

At the time, Rosenthal was serving on a panel of attorneys in the District of Maryland that was created under the federal Criminal Justice Act, giving lawyers the chance to volunteer pro bono on criminal cases for indigent defendants.

For Rosenthal, picking up the case was like flexing an old muscle after having started his career doing capital defense work in Alabama and Georgia.

"It was what I did when I was a baby lawyer," he told Law360 Pulse. "And I was interested in taking it up again."

Until leaving the firm in December to serve as a chief deputy in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Rosenthal led the Venable team that represented Lighty in challenging his sentence.

"[Lighty] has been locked up since he was a teenager," said Jonathan Hettleman, a Venable associate who worked on the case with Rosenthal. "And he has spent the last 20 years in prison working to better himself and to show the community and the world in any way he can that his life matters, and that he does not deserve to die and that he has a lot to offer his community and his family and the world."

Since being sent to prison, Lighty has earned his GED and started a nonprofit with his goddaughter, TaTiana Rawlings. The nonprofit, called The Lighty Project, gives monthly meals to D.C. residents facing housing instability and hunger.

Lighty's team was able to get his death sentence and firearms convictions thrown out after pointing to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down during Venable's time working on the case.

It started with a 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States striking down a provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which allows for sentencing enhancements in cases where felons commit crimes with firearms.

In the Johnson case, the justices held that a clause in the statute extending the definition of "crimes of violence" to include any action that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another" was unconstitutionally vague.

The holding was eventually made retroactive following the court's 2016 decision in Welch v. United States .

Both the prosecution and defense in Lighty's case ultimately agreed that Lighty's three convictions for the use of a firearm during a crime of violence should be tossed because the charges on which they were predicated — conspiracy to commit kidnapping and kidnapping resulting in death — were no longer considered "crimes of violence" under the Armed Career Criminal Act thanks to recent Supreme Court precedent, including the Johnson decision, according to court documents.

But prosecutors disagreed with the defense team's position that Lighty's death sentence should be vacated as well based on the likelihood that the firearms convictions influenced the jury's decision to recommend the death penalty.

Prosecutors argued that the firearms convictions had little impact on the jury's and court's decision regarding the kidnapping-resulting-in-death charge, for which Lighty was sentenced to die. But this spring, Judge Messitte sided with the defense.

In an April 13 opinion, Judge Messitte said the court could not rule out the possibility that jurors improperly considered the firearms convictions.

"In sum, the record simply does not meet the 'high requirement of reliability' required in death penalty cases," he wrote.

Now, Lighty awaits resentencing as he remains incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, a medium-security prison in Indiana. If he has to go through the penalty phase again, Hettleman says his case would need to be brought before a newly empaneled jury.

"Basically, the judge has ordered Kenny's lawyers … and the U.S. Attorney's Office to meet and confer about what a new penalty phase trial will look like and how long it's going to take and how long, presumably, Kenny's lawyers need to prepare," Rosenthal said.

Venable withdrew its appearance from the case in December when Rosenthal left the firm. Beth Ann Muhlhauser and Leane Renée of the federal Public Defender's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, as well as Julie Brain, who worked for the Delaware Federal Public Defender's Office when she was brought onto the case in 2011, have continued to represent Lighty into 2023.

Hettleman says Venable's involvement in the case going forward will depend on what additional work, if any, needs to be done on Lighty's case.

"He has shown that he is somebody who has a lot to offer the world and his community and that he has a lot more to offer the world than the mistakes that he made as a teenager," Hettleman said.

--Editing by Jill Coffey.

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