An Anniston man convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for his part in the 2011 killing of a Wellborn teacher will get a second chance at life, after a Friday court ruling.
The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals announced that Jovon Gaston's case would be sent back to Calhoun County for a resentencing hearing after the court found cause in an appeal to overturn his death sentence.
Prosecutors said the three men kidnapped the teacher and drove him to ATMs, forcing him to withdraw money at gunpoint and taking him to a secluded section of U.S. 278 near Piedmont. Authorities found Kevin Thompson’s body near the highway early on the morning of April 23, 2011, stabbed to death.
Smith was convicted and sentenced to death in a July 2013 trial. Thompson is still awaiting trial.
Gaston’s trial lasted seven days in September and October 2015. The jury deliberated for less than two hours and found Gaston guilty of two counts of capital murder, one involving kidnapping and the other involving robbery.
Gaston filed an appeal claiming his right to represent himself and right to a speedy trial were violated and that jurors were improperly dismissed because of their race. The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with Gaston on 11 of his 12 claims.
A sentencing hearing for Gaston is scheduled for Nov. 12. Under Alabama law, a judge can overrule a jury’s sentence in a capital murder case.
Gaston argued in his final claim that prosecutors elicited testimony from Kevin Thompson’s family during the sentencing phase that persuaded the jury to recommend the death penalty.
During the testimony, Thompson’s mother, Frances Curry, and sister, Rena Curry, asked the jury to give Gaston the death penalty.
“He showed Kevin no mercy, and I'm asking all of you to do the same,” Rena Curry testified.
“My loss is tremendous...What I'm about to tell you right now it's not for vengeance and it's not even any hate in my heart but it is for justice. I want the death penalty,” the elder Curry told the jury.
According to the Court of Appeals’ opinion, prosecutors then “told the jury that Frances Curry was right that the appropriate punishment for what Gaston did was the death penalty.”
“The appellate courts of this State have found error in cases where the family members of the victim were allowed to present in the penalty phase their characterizations or opinions of the defendant, the crime, or the appropriate punishment,” according to the court’s opinion.
The same happened in Smith’s case, the court wrote.
“Frances Curry and Rena Curry provided the jury with their characterization of [Gaston] and his crime as well as their desire for the jury to recommend a sentence of death just as they did in Smith's case,” according to the opinion.
The court ruled that Calhoun County Circuit Judge Bud Turner failed to inform the jury on how the family’s testimony was to be used during their deliberations.
The court ruled that Gaston’s convictions would stand but his death sentence would not. The case will now go back to Turner for another sentencing hearing.