Another Case of Disparate Sentencing
On March 18, 1986, Stephen West, 23, and Ronnie Martin, 17, were arrested for the murders of Wanda and Sheila Romines. West was ultimately sentenced to death in 1987 for the murders though his co-defendant confessed to being the actual killer. However, because Martin was a juvenile at the time, he was ineligible to receive the death penalty so he received two life sentences instead.
West and Martin left work at McDonalds in Lake City, Tennessee, on March 17 and went driving around and drinking in Martin’s car for several hours. They drove to the home of Sheila Romines, a classmate of Martin’s who had previously rejected his unwanted advances. At approximately 5:20 a.m. after Mr. Romines left for work, Martin knocked on the door with West standing nearby. When the door was opened, the two then made their way into the house. Between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., Wanda and Sheila were brutally murdered. Sheila was raped before she was killed.
The two defendants were tried separately. The State prosecuted West first. West admitted that he was present with Martin during the commission of the crimes but denied any participation in Wanda and Sheila’s deaths. Furthermore, the trial judge did not allow the jury to hear a tape recording of Martin confessing to both murders while he was in custody at the jail. On the tape, Martin discusses his involvement in the crimes with another inmate and says plainly that he, Martin, killed both women.
No court, state or federal, has ever reviewed West’s claim that extensive mitigating evidence was never presented at his trial due to trial counsel’s ineffectiveness. West was the subject of constant, severe child abuse when he was growing up in a family with a history of psychiatric illness. In fact, he was born in a mental institution as his mother was hospitalized at the time. He was constantly beaten, and his alcoholic father disavowed paternity. None of this evidence was ever presented to West’s jury because his attorneys never investigated the issue and were further taking marching orders from West’s mother, who had hired the lead attorney. West also had no criminal record at the time of his arrest.
Finally, since 2001, prison officials have recognized that West suffers from severe mental illnesses that include auditory hallucinations. Psychological evidence shows that West was more likely to be a follower who was easily influenced by the more aggressive Martin. In response to repeated and severe childhood abuse, West could become a very passive person, susceptible to breaks with reality in situations of extreme stress.
Prison doctors have diagnosed West as suffering from major depressive disorder with psychotic features, paranoid schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. West is prescribed powerful medications to combat the symptoms of these illnesses. It is likely that West’s mental illnesses were present long before prison doctors diagnosed him and could have affected his conduct at the time of the crime.
No one denies that Stephen West was present during the commission of these brutal crimes. However, the disparate sentences received by the defendants provide further evidence of the arbitrary nature of the death penalty, particularly considering that the evidence now points to Martin as the leader and the aggressor. It is patently unfair and disturbing that Stephen West could receive the death penalty because his co-defendant was ineligible for it.