Appeals court vacates death sentence against DeKalb killer

The federal appeals court in Atlanta on Friday threw out death sentences imposed against Eric Lynn Ferrell, who shot and killed his grandmother and cousin in 1987.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Ferrell's two lawyers from the DeKalb County Public Defender's Office were ineffective because they failed to uncover and present "very significant" mitigation evidence. If they had, there is a reasonable probability the jury would not have sentenced Ferrell to death, the court said.

Ferrell, 48, is now entitled to another sentencing trial.

The state Attorney General's Office did not have enough time Friday to review the ruling to decide whether there is any basis to ask the 11th Circuit to reconsider its decision, spokeswoman Lauren Kane said. Ferrell's lawyers could not be reached for comment.

DeKalb police said Ferrell committed the killings to get about $700 from his grandmother, Willie Myrt Lowe. The bodies of the 72-year-old woman and Ferrell's cousin, Tony Kilgore, 15, were discovered in Lowe's home on Miller Grove Road the morning of Dec. 30, 1987. Both had been shot in their heads at contact range.

Prosecutors said police found $676 in cash and four spent .22-caliber rounds in Ferrell's pockets. A .22-caliber revolver later identified as the murder weapon was found in his home.

At trial, a DeKalb prosecutor told jurors Ferrell was "the Devil made flesh" who had committed cold-blooded executions. The jury gave Ferrell death sentences for both killings.

But 11th Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, in a 100-page ruling, said it was also important what jurors did not hear at trial. They were not told Ferrell suffered from extensive, disabling mental health problems and diseases, such as organic brain damage to the frontal lobe, bipolar disorder and epilepsy. Nor did jurors learn that Ferrell tried to attempt suicide at age 11 or that his father used to awaken him at night, strip him naked and beat him with razor strops and fan belts.

"In this case, trial counsel conducted a profoundly incomplete investigation," Marcus wrote.

Marcus also found troubling that Ferrell had a seizure during the trial and fell to the floor shaking and speaking gibberish. When it ended, Ferrell did not appear to know what had happened.

"Remarkably," Marcus wrote, "defense counsel never sought so much as a continuance [of the trial] to determine if there was some mental health issue that cased the seizure or to evaluate the defendant's mental health further."