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Prosecutors to drop death penalty in 30-year-old murder case

Pima County prosecutors won’t seek the death penalty in a 30-year-old double murder case.

Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay told Pima County Superior Court Judge John S. Leonardo on Monday that he will soon file a notice to drop the death penalty allegation against Jasper McMurtrey.

McMurtrey was convicted in 1981 and sentenced to death for the 1979 shooting deaths of Barry E. Collins of North Carolina and Albert Hughes Jr. of New Jersey at the now-defunct Ranch House bar, a topless-dancer club and biker hangout at 4950 N. Casa Grande Highway. He was sentenced to 21 years for wounding another bar patron, Eugene Taylor.

McMurtrey spent 22 years on Arizona’s death row before a federal court ruled he was unfairly convicted.

Among the complications of the case is that some of the original trial witnesses have died, including a key witness who was killed in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies, Unklesbay said previously.

Unklesbay has been talking to defense attorneys regarding a possible plea deal. If no plea deal is reached, then McMurtrey will be retried on two first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Collins and Hughes.

In March 2003, a federal judge ordered a new trial, ruling that McMurtrey’s legal representation had been inadequate. The state Attorney General’s Office appealed that ruling, but failed to seek a stay of the new trial, which was supposed to take place within 180 days.

In December 2003, U.S. District Judge William Fremming Nielsen released McMurtrey, saying he did not believe he intended to kill.

In August, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Nielsen’s ruling, saying that McMurtrey likely wasn’t competent to stand trial in 1981.

“We hold that McMurtrey’s memory problems, his erratic behavior, and the variety and quantity of medications that he was prescribed, combined with the absence of an expert evaluation made at the time of trial, created a reasonable doubt as to McMurtrey’s mental competence to stand trial,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote in the appellate ruling.

McMurtrey, who lives in South Carolina, didn’t attend Monday’s hearing. McMurtrey has complied with all of his conditions of a pre-trial release in the five years since he was freed, defense attorney Gregory Kuykendall said Monday.

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