Rare death penalty trial set to start in Detroit court Jury screening begins today, opening statements set for July 1

By Ed White

Associated Press Writer

DETROIT (AP) -- Secretly recorded conversations at a prison could lead to a rare death sentence in Michigan as jury selection begins this week in the trial of a man charged with killing an armored-truck employee in 2001.

The death penalty is never an option in Michigan's state courts, but that punishment is possible for certain crimes prosecuted in federal court.

Timothy O'Reilly is charged with fatally shooting Norman Stephens while the 30-year-old victim was delivering cash to Dearborn Federal Credit Union in Dearborn.

Bank robberies are commonly investigated by the FBI and prosecuted in federal court. In this case, the U.S. Justice Department told prosecutors in 2006 to pursue the death penalty against O'Reilly and two co-defendants.

Potential jurors will begin appearing Tuesday for screening by lawyers and U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts. The trial's opening statements are set for July 1 but could be moved up if jury selection goes quickly, court spokesman Rod Hansen said.

More than 250 people were summoned in May to fill out a questionnaire. Anyone who opposes the death penalty for philosophical or religious reasons will be removed from the jury pool.

The last death penalty trial in Detroit was in 2003 when a drug dealer, John Bass, was convicted of killing a rival. The jury, however, declined to sentence him to death, and he was sent to prison for life.

In western Michigan, a federal jury in 2002 put Marvin Gabrion on death row for killing a woman who had accused him of rape. Rachel Timmerman's body was found in a remote lake in a national forest. Gabrion's case still is being appealed.

Death penalty cases are unique in federal court: If a defendant is convicted, a second trial is held to determine whether the jury wants to order death.

That phase involves new issues, including a person's mental health, life history and other factors. Evidence rules are not as strict.

In declaring that they would seek a death sentence for O'Reilly, prosecutors said he showed a "complete lack of remorse" for Stephens' death and told others he would kill again, according to a court filing.

O'Reilly and others were charged in 2004, three years after the $200,000 robbery.

The FBI said it received a letter stating that O'Reilly was bragging about killing Stephens while in prison for a gun crime. An inmate agreed to secretly record him using a modified radio supplied by agents.

Defense lawyers claim there is no other evidence suggesting Stephens was killed execution-style and justifying a death sentence.

The government also is pursuing the death penalty against co-defendants Norman Duncan and Kevin Watson, but they will have separate trials.

Another co-defendant, Earl Johnson, was not a candidate for the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison in 2008 after his trial.

Robin Stephens said her husband was "slaughtered like an animal."

"The money you stole has been replaced," she told Johnson in court. "Norman Anthony Stephens can never be replaced."

Published: Tue, Jun 8, 2010