US court to rehear Tongan death row case decision

'Oku 'ikai tuku e feinga 'a e kau loea 'a e tangata Tonga 'i 'Amelika ko Siaosi Vanisi ke fakahaofi 'ene mo'ui' mei he tautea mate kuo hilifaki kiate ia'. Ko e tangata 'eni na'a' ne fakapoongi ha polisi sātini ko George Sullivan 'i Reno, Nevada 'i he ta'u 1998. Neongo ne 'osi 'i ai 'ene ngaahi tangi ki mu'a pea 'ikai pe tali kuo to e loto pe 'ene kau loea' ke toe fai ha tangi pea ne faka'aho ia ki he māhina' ni.

A state court in US was expected to rehear the case of a Tongan death row inmate convicted of murdering a police officer in Reno, Nevada in 1998.

A Nevada news media report said another hearing was scheduled for this month.

Siaosi Vanisi was convicted in the beating death of police officer George Sullivan while in his patrol car at a parking lot near an information kiosk between UNR’s Morrill Hall and Manzanita Lake.

Sullivan had 10 blows to his face, seven to his scalp area, two on the upper part of his body and another to the left hand that nearly severed two fingers, an autopsy report said.

This was not the first time Vanisi’s death case had been challenged in court.

In his latest appeal in September 2017, the Nevada Supreme Court sent the case back for an evidentiary hearing to decide whether Vanisi was prejudiced by his appellate lawyer’s failure to investigate and present possible mitigating evidence that could have prevented jurors from imposing the death sentence.

However, his post-conviction lawyers decided to pursue a motion challenging Vanisi’s mental competency, which the high court unanimously agreed was “objectively unreasonable.”

They directed the district court to address “whether trial counsel should have discovered and presented the (mitigation) evidence as well as whether there was a reasonable probability of a different outcome at the penalty hearing had this additional mitigation evidence been presented.”

But the Supreme Court rejected more than a dozen other challenges to Vanisi’s conviction and sentence, including the argument he should have been allowed to plead insanity.

In an appeal in 2010, Vanisi’s lawyers raised numerous challenges to his death sentence, including that a judge erred by determining he was mentally competent to assist in post-conviction appeals.

But the Nevada Supreme court has denied it.

According to a Reno Gazette Journal report this week, “Another hearing in state court has been set in 2019,” for Vanisi.

It said his attorneys continue to pursue his case in state court, despite Vanisi’s wish to waive his remaining state court claims.

In a previous appeal in 2001, the Nevada Supreme Court said “The evidence of Vanisi’s guilt in this case is overwhelming.”

It said: “During a visit to Reno in January 1998, Vanisi told several friends and relatives that he wanted to murder and rob a police officer.  

“Makeleta Kavapalu testified that Vanisi indicated that “he was going to kill a police officer with his ax.”  

“Sateki Taukiuvea testified that Vanisi said that he wanted to kill a police officer and take his badge, radio, gun, and belt.  

The defence called a number of witnesses, including Vanisi’s relatives.  

Some of the witnesses indicated that Vanisi had changed in the last few years.   For example, Vanisi’s wife testified that Vanisi had been friendly, outgoing, and kind but began to change in late 1995 and 1996.   At times Vanisi became violent and abusive, he exhibited poor hygiene and bizarre behavior, he would ramble, and he lacked a sense of reality.   Vanisi would sometimes pose in front of a mirror pretending to be different people and would dress as a superhero.   Eventually, Vanisi’s wife left him.   Testimony at the penalty phase indicated that drug use by Vanisi might have been a factor in his changed behavior.

The defense also called a psychiatrist, Dr. Ole Thienhaus, who treated patients at the county jail, including Vanisi.   Thienhaus testified that his initial diagnosis of Vanisi indicated possible bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, or cyclothymia, a similar condition.  

However, Thienhaus testified that this kind of “out-of-control” behavior was impulsive and inconsistent with planning for a crime.

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