A Baton Rouge man's death sentence in the 2011 slaying of two CarQuest Auto Parts employees at the company's Airline Highway store near Siegen Lane was thrown out Wednesday by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The high court, however, affirmed Lee Turner Jr.'s 2015 first-degree murder convictions in the fatal shooting of Edward "Eddie" Gurtner III, 43, of Denham Springs, and Randy Chaney, 55, of Greenwell Springs.
Turner began working for CarQuest in Baton Rouge just 11 days before he killed the men during a Sunday afternoon robbery.
The Supreme Court said it tossed Turner's death sentence because state District Judge Richard Anderson issued a ruling in the middle of jury selection that prevented the defense from inquiring into prospective jurors' ability to fairly consider voting for a life sentence in a case involving a double murder committed during an armed robbery.
The high court sent the case back to Anderson for a new sentencing hearing.
One of Turner’s appellate attorneys, Caroline Tillman with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“The importance of a fair jury in a death penalty trial cannot be overstated, and we are thankful that the Louisiana Supreme Court has stepped in,” she said.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said his office is grateful that Turner’s convictions were affirmed “but nonetheless express our respectful disappointment … with respect to sentencing.”
“After enduring 13 days of jury selection followed by 9 days of trial, resulting in unanimous convictions and verdicts of death, the victims’ family members are still without closure with regard to the consequences (Turner) will face for killing Randy Chaney and Eddie Gurtner,” Moore said.
Moore said his office will “evaluate our future actions with respect to the sentencing after the new year.”
Turner’s trial attorneys, East Baton Rouge Parish assistant public defenders Margaret Lagattuta and Scott Collier, noted Wednesday that they objected to Anderson’s ruling at the time it was made.
Collier said he knew the trial court’s ruling during jury selection excluding questions about armed robbery “would be a major issue on appeal.”
“Our objections then have saved Lee Turner’s life today,” Lagattuta added.
Justice Scott Crichton authored the Supreme Court decision and wrote that Anderson’s ruling categorically prohibiting Turner’s attorneys from referencing armed robbery to potential jurors “runs afoul” of prior state Supreme Court decisions.
“The general allegations of the case at hand necessarily included the fact that there were two victims and that the victims were killed during an armed robbery. Indeed, these were the exact statutory aggravators set forth in the state’s notice of intent to seek the death penalty,” Crichton stated. “The trial court’s blanket prohibition against referencing armed robbery was therefore an abuse of discretion.”
Turner’s appellate attorneys argued that Anderson’s ruling mandated reversal of his convictions as well, but the Supreme Court disagreed, saying the error required only overturning his death sentence.
Justices Greg Guidry and Jeff Hughes agreed with their Supreme Court colleagues’ upholding of Turner’s convictions but dissented with their decision to reverse his death sentence and order a new sentencing hearing.
Turner, 28 and formerly of New Orleans, confessed the day after the March 27, 2011, killings that he shot Chaney first, then Gurtner after forcing him to open the store safe. Gurtner died with the store's keys, including a key to the safe, in his hand. A search warrant led to the discovery of bank bags and CarQuest deposit slips in a garbage can outside the Ritterman Avenue home where Turner was staying with an uncle.
Gurtner managed the store where the shooting occurred. He wasn't scheduled to work that day but went in to catch up on restocking and to hang a mirror in the store's bathroom. He was shot a dozen times, including several times in the back, as he tried to run from Turner. Chaney was the assistant manager of the company's Staring Lane location but was helping out at the Airline Highway store that ill-fated day. He was shot once in the back of the head.