Lingering death penalty case takes toll on family

BRETT BARROUQUERE Associated Press Published:

COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Gayle Williamson Cummings and Michelle Hubert sat just feet apart, separated by an aisle and a security guard. They didn't look at each other or speak with each other, even though they were together for nearly a week, grieving over the same 1988 slaying.

Hubert's brother, 44-year-old Fred Furnish, is seeking to overturn his death sentence for killing Cummings' mother, Ramona Jean Williamson, inside her Crestview Hills home 14 years ago.

As the hearing, scheduled to end Friday, wound on in Kenton Circuit Court, the toll of the death and the long wait for a resolution became apparent while former jurors testified and the man who prosecuted Furnish attended the hearing.

"Will an execution bring comfort? Yes," Cummings said. "Closure? No. What closure does that bring?"

Long intervals between death sentences being handed down and inmates being executed are common in Kentucky. The average death row inmate has been at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville for more than 16 years and 15 have been awaiting execution for two decades or more. Kentucky's 35 death row inmates (including one woman held in a different prison) are an average age of just more than 50 years old -- about 14 years older than the 23,000 inmates in the Kentucky prison system.

Kentucky has executed three inmates since 1976, the last in 2008. The state is in the process of changing how it handles lethal injections to comply with a judge's order.

A judge sentenced Furnish to death July 8, 1999, for killing Williamson, then using her debit cards to withdraw money from her bank accounts a year earlier. A housekeeper found Williamson immersed in water inside her home.

Furnish, who had several convictions for theft and burglary, spent nearly a dozen years in prison in Kentucky and Indiana. Each time he was released, he soon returned to prison for another burglary. By the time he was released in April 1997, he had hit a prison guard, adding an assault charge to his record.

Furnish is also serving life without parole for 25 years for the strangulation death of 70-year-old Doris Bertsch in her Kenton Hills home in October 1987. Prosecutors believe Furnish, a one-time carpet cleaner, used the ruse of following up on a job to get into the homes of both Bertsch and Williamson to steal from them. While there, former Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Buring said, he killed each woman. Furnish pleaded guilty to killing Bertsch after being charged in Williamson's death.

Cummings and Hubert spent the week in court listening to attorneys for Furnish argue that his trial lawyers were inadequate to the point of violating the Constitution. In arguments and more than 1,000 pages of court filings, attorneys Meggan Smith and Jamesa Drake argued that Furnish's prior lawyers didn't interview their own witnesses, failed to suppress evidence obtained in violation of their client's Constitutional rights and didn't follow up on leads that may have helped Furnish avoid a death sentence.

The hearing isn't the first time the women have crossed paths. Furnish won a new sentencing hearing in 2004, a process that landed him back on death row. For Buring, enough is enough.

"Some form of closure is needed. It just goes on and on," Buring said. "Of course, it gets personal. You see the families here, waiting for years."

The images from the trial and the lingering legal limbo have stayed with members of both families, as well as jurors in the case.

Craig Bluelein, a juror at Furnish's 2004 resentencing, testified Thursday that the case still troubles him, saying he could still recall graphic photos of the crime scenes.

"The pictures of what he did still haunt me," Bluelein said. "And, I'm mad about it."

As he left the courtroom, Bluelein passed by Furnish, looked at the convicted killer in a yellow jump suit and shackles and said, "Enjoy." Bluelein then muttered an obscenity as he walked through the courtroom doors.

Both Cummings and Hubert fought back tears at times during the hearing, repeatedly wiping their eyes. At times, Cummings, who took copious notes, put her notebook aside, removed her glasses and cried.

"We're still putting up with this 14 years later," said Cummings, her eyes red. "He's still around. I'm frustrated."

Hubert, who traveled with family from Guilford, Ind., wanted to speak to Cummings, but couldn't bring herself to discuss their shared grief.

"We've never spoken to them," Hubert told The Associated Press. "There just aren't any words."

Cummings didn't need any words. When told by a reporter that Hubert expressed her sympathy, Cummings shook her head, went to a nearby bench, sat down and cried.

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Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP

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