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Despite defendant's plea offer, capital trial in Memphis triple shooting to start in Memphis


MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Sedrick Clayton offered to plead guilty and serve three life terms for gunning down his girlfriend and her parents. Prosecutors in Memphis have accepted plea deals before in death penalty cases, including one in which one of the victims was a police officer.

This time, they aren't interested.

Clayton, 30, is to go on trial Monday on murder charges in the January 2011 shootings of Pashea Fisher and her parents, Arithio and Patricia Fisher, at her parents' home. Police say his 4-year-old daughter was in the house at the time, and that he took her with him before turning himself in hours after the shooting.

A police affidavit says the victims were shot multiple times, and that Clayton — who has no prior criminal record as an adult aside from traffic violations — acknowledged in a typed statement that he was responsible.

Several Memphis attorneys have questioned why prosecutors would continue with a costly, emotionally-trying, capital trial when they have a guilty plea in hand. While prosecutors have the right to seek death when they believe it is warranted, it is puzzling that they would accept a plea deal in the officer's shooting and not in Clayton's case, an outside attorney said.

One expert called Clayton's unusual offer a tactic by his attorney to influence a jury that would decide whether Clayton should be executed.

Gerald Skahan, Clayton's lawyer, wrote a letter in April 2013 to Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich saying that the guilty pleas will ensure Clayton will never be released from prison and will save taxpayers the cost of an expensive death penalty trial. Skahan has said in court hearings that he does not intend to challenge prosecutors' assertions that Clayton fired the shots.

The letter says Clayton wants to accept responsibility for his actions in the impulse shooting.

"Sedrick has two young daughters, one of whom is the daughter of one of the victims, who may one day want answers from him, the source, about how and why this horrific tragedy occurred," the letter said. "Too many lives have been lost in this case."

But Weirich has stayed firm. In a court filing in July 2012 , her office said it would seek the death penalty in the Clayton case because the shootings were a "mass murder" of three people. She has declined to say why she declined the plea offer or to discuss details of pre-trial negotiations.

"Certainly, when more than one victims are killed in one criminal episode, it's taken very seriously by this office and by the community," said Weirich, who is running for re-election this year.

Nashville defense attorney David Raybin, a former prosecutor, said the death penalty can be used to induce a defendant to plead guilty in the most serious cases, and there often are private negotiations ahead of a potential trial.

"But, that the defendant publicly throws out that he wants to take a plea like this ... that is uncommon," Raybin said.

Raybin also said the acceptance of responsibility could be a move by defense attorneys to sway the jury away from the death penalty should Clayton be convicted.

"That is a tactic that lawyers do use when the facts are overwhelming," Raybin said.

In January, Weirich's office accepted a guilty plea in return for two consecutive life terms in the case of Alexander Haydel, who fatally shot his wife's ex-husband and Memphis police officer Tim Warren in July 2011. Haydel acknowledged killing Arthur Warren during an argument at a downtown Memphis hotel, then ambushing the officer in a stairwell as he responded to the shooting. The victims were not related.

Weirich has declined to discuss the Haydel case.

Longtime defense and civil rights attorney Phillip Kuhn, a former Shelby County prosecutor, also said Clayton's public acceptance of responsibility is unusual. But both he and Raybin said it is fair to question why Weirich would take a plea in the officer shooting and not in Clayton's.

"The police officer killing, that's really a death penalty case," Kuhn said. "I don't know why she's making a distinction in this case."

Jury selection begins Monday. Judge Carolyn Wade-Blackett is allowing 911 calls made during the shooting to be used as evidence at trial. She also is allowing the use of photos of the victims taken while they were alive.

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