Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash has decided to not seek the death penalty against a Columbus man charged with killing four people in Waynesville last spring.
Samuel E. Sallee, 56, was charged in December with four counts of murder in connection with the May 11 shooting deaths of Katheryn M. Burton, 53; Thomas W. Smith, 39; Aaron T. Cross, 41; and Shawn L. Burton, 40.
Nash, who announced his decision on the final day of a deadline set by Circuit Court Judge Stephen Heimann, indicated that a significant factor was considering the wishes of surviving family members.
The victims were found slain in the Waynesville house shared by Katheryn Burton and Smith, after Burton’s adult son Daniel returned home from work that night.
Nash met individually or in small groups with about 20 family members and told them that in death-penalty cases, the time between the offense and execution averages nearly 20 years.
“By the time they’re ready to kill him, he’ll probably be dead already,” said Pam Zurburgg, Katheryn Burton’s sister.
“I think this is the best thing,” she said.
“Although I sought the input of all family members, I want to make it very clear that I did not take a poll and that the responsibility for the ultimate decision is mine and mine alone,” Nash said.
During Sallee’s initial hearing in January, Heimann said death-penalty cases follow more intricate procedures than other trials, which adds greatly to the expense and length of legal proceedings.
Floyd County taxpayers paid $4 million when a capital-punishment case was conducted there.
“It’s not worth it,” Zurburgg said.
Sallee’s trial is set to start at 8:30 a.m. June 24.
By not seeking the death penalty, family members will be spared the painful emotions and memories that will emerge every time the case is appealed, Zurburgg said.
When Sallee was charged Dec. 13 with the killings, the widow of Aaron Cross said she wanted to see the person responsible put to death.
But after talking with Nash, Kelly Cross said she had a change of heart.
“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I am that he doesn’t deserve the special treatment or the special notoriety,” Cross said.
“Besides, I don’t want my 4-year-old graduating from college 20 years from now, still feeling his daddy’s murder is unresolved.”
Instead, Cross would rather see her husband’s killer thrown into prison and forgotten.
Cross said she has confidence in Nash’s decision and in his ability to get a conviction in the quadruple-homicide case.
In January, Sallee was declared indigent by the court and is represented by a pair of court-appointed attorneys from Columbus, David Nowak and Christopher Clerc.
Had Nash decided to seek the death penalty, both lawyers would have had to be replaced.
Court rules in Indiana and federal death-penalty guidelines require specific training and experience for defense counsel in such cases, and not a single lawyer in Bartholomew County has those qualifications, Heimann wrote.
Nowak said Bartholomew County attorneys who serve as public defenders generally don’t go to the time and effort of getting qualified to handle death-penalty cases because it’s extremely rare to have one in Columbus.
The most recent death sentence carried out after a Bartholomew County court case occurred when Robert Watts of Indianapolis was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die. Watts had been accused of killing a woman from Indianapolis in 1947. He was ordered to die in Indiana’s electric chair, and the sentence was carried out Jan. 16, 1951.
Attorneys who handle death trials must have experience in such cases and have completed certain training courses offered by the Indiana Public Defender Commission.
Heimann’s order notes that intricate death-penalty rules of procedure would complicate the Sallee trial from the moment jury selection began.
Interviews with prospective jurors would have to be conducted individually. And because of the sensitive nature of death cases, Heimann estimated that an additional 100 people would have to be brought in for initial jury interviews.
“Jurors would be sequestered from the beginning, so the court would need to make arrangements for hotel accommodations and security and transportation, etc.,” Heimann wrote in January.
Under Indiana law, a murder conviction carries a minimum sentence of 45 years to a maximum of 65 years in prison, meaning if Sallee was convicted of four killings, he could get from 180 to 260 years in prison.