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Appeals court rejects request to remove judge in Arizona death-penalty case

By Maryann Batlle, Cronkite News Service –

WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court Friday rejected an Arizona death row inmate’s request that a judge recuse herself from his carjacking-murder case because her own father was murdered in a carjacking close to 40 years ago.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said Kevin Miles’ request that Judge Susan Graber recuse herself was inappropriate and “especially flimsy.”

Graber wrote the opinion last month upholding Miles’ death sentence for the 1992 carjacking and murder of Patricia Baeuerlen in Tucson. Graber’s father, Julius, was carjacked in 1974 by two teens wielding a sawed-off shotgun, then driven to a Cincinnati cemetery, where he was shot in the back of the head.

Miles’ motion said federal court procedure and U.S. law require that federal judges disqualify themselves “in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

But Judges Marsha Berzon and Richard Tallman wrote that it is up to Graber to decide whether or not to step down, and they went on to defend her impartiality at some length in their published five-page order.

“Life experiences do not disqualify us from serving as judges on cases in which the issues or the facts are in some indirect way related to our personal experiences,” they wrote.

Miles’ public defender, Timothy Gabrielsen, had no comment on the order Friday except to say, “I stand by the motion. I think it is appropriate.”

Assistant Arizona Attorney General Jonathan Bass called the timing of the motion peculiar, since it came after the court had already ruled on Miles’ appeal. If there’s any doubt, “you don’t want the judge to rule at all,” he said.

Bass agreed with the order, saying he “had no reason to think they (the circuit judges) are not impartial.”

Miles, then 24, and two underage friends were standing on a street corner in Tucson in December 1992 when Baeuerlen pulled up. Levi Jackson, 16, pointed a gun at her and the trio got into her car.

They drove to the desert, where they took her out of the car, taunted and harassed her before Jackson shot her in the chest and they drove off, leaving Baeuerlen where she had been shot.

Miles later used Baeuerlen’s ATM card to take money out of her account. He drove her car to Phoenix where he went shopping at a mall, exchanged her children’s Christmas gifts for other items and met with friends.

Police arrested Miles two days after Baeuerlen’s slaying, and he confessed after several hours of questioning. He was later convicted and sentenced to death. Jackson, who was initially sentenced to death, had the sentence reversed on appeal and is now serving a life sentence.

The recusal motion noted similarities to Julius Graber’s murder and to the post-conviction proceedings for Willie Lee Bell, an accomplice in Graber’s killing.

Bell, who was 16 at the time of that crime, was sentenced to death, but his sentence was overturned in 1978. He is now serving a life sentence in Ohio.

A motion for a rehearing before the full 9th Circuit of the latest decision in Miles’ case is pending. If that motion is denied, Miles could then petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing.

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