In Lake Co., seeking death penalty a team decision
By Ruth Ann Krause Post-Tribune correspondent July 28, 2014 8:20PM
Updated: August 30, 2014 6:24AM
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter must decide whether to seek the death penalty against a Gary man accused of the July 6 slaying of Gary Patrolman Jeffrey Westerfield — a decision he makes with top aides in his office.
In the wake of a gag order issued after Carl Le’Ellis Blount, 25, was charged last week with killing Westerfield, Carter and Chief Deputy Prosecutor Barbara McConnell spoke only in generalities on Monday about the process to determine if the death penalty will be pursued.
The aggravating circumstance that a prosecutor must establish in a death penalty case can range from an intentional killing while committing another murder or a crime such as arson, child molesting, rape, kidnapping or criminal gang activity to whether the victim was dismembered, tortured or is younger than 12.
Aggravating circumstances also include two factors that could apply in the Westerfield homicide — the victim is a law enforcement officer acting in the course of duty and the defendant was on probation at the time for another offense.
Carter, a member of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Association’s death penalty review board, said every county in Indiana has its own process in deciding whether to seek the death penalty in a case. Carter said he meets with McConnell, first assistant Peter Villarreal, trial supervisors and senior prosecutors as well as lead investigators to review the strengths and weaknesses of the case.
If a case qualified under those factors, Carter said he presents it to the death penalty review board in Indianapolis.
“We are there to assist prosecutors throughout the state on their cases, answer questions and to be consistent statewide,” Carter said of the board’s function.
Carter said it’s also important to talk with the victim’s family.
“They have to be on board (with seeking capital punishment). We have to know if they can wait 20 years for it to end,” he said, referring to the lengthy appeals process in a capital case.
Lake County’s most recent death penalty case took five years to resolve and resulted in the 2013 conviction of Kevin C. Isom, 48, who murdered his wife and two stepchildren.
McConnell said those involved in the review like to know as much as they can about the defendant’s background, including his IQ or factors the defense can use in mitigation against a death sentence or life without parole.
Westerfield, a 19-year police veteran was killed on his 47th birthday in his police car at 26th Avenue and Van Buren Place in Gary as he was looking for a person who had been involved in an earlier domestic dispute. Westerfield was shot at close range with a .40-caliber handgun that was stolen about 10 months ago from a truck in Indianapolis, court records state.
They indicate that the night before Westerfield was killed, Blount and his girlfriend, Jennifer Guzman, had been at the Voodoo Club in Gary, and on the way home, a friend of Guzman’s accused Blount of having an affair with another woman. After they got out of the car, the couple began arguing, and a struggle ensued over a gun that Blount carried, according to court records.
Guzman told police she got control of the gun, which “went off,” and Blount picked up the gun and ran, police reported. They said Westerfield’s last radio communication was at 4:26 a.m. when he asked for a description of Blount. He was found dead by a passerby at 5:50 a.m.
Lake Superior Court Judge Samuel Cappas, who will preside over the Blount case, issued a gag order that prevents those involved in the case from speaking publicly about it except in court.