Arizona Supreme Court reduces Shawn Grells death sentence to life in prison

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Supreme Court reduced the sentence of Shawn Grell Wednesday. Grell was originally sentenced to death for one of the most chilling and gruesome murders in East Valley history.

He will now serve natural life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On December 2, 1999 Grell picked up his 2-year-old daughter Kristen from day care and drove her to a dirt road near Apache Junction, where he lit the child on fire.

In a taped police confession, Grell described the killing in detail.

“I laid her in the dirt next to the car, laid her down,” Grell said on the tape, “I took gasoline. Poured it on her. I took a match and threw it on her. She screamed, she goes, she was crying and she goes ‘Aaah.’ I poured the gas on her and she starts walking in circles real fast. I couldn’t even look at her.”

After Grell was convicted and sentenced to death, and as he was awaiting an appeal, a ruling from the United States Supreme Court would set the wheels in motion to change his fate.

In 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court changed the rules for death penalty with regard to legally mentally retarded individuals.

“The U.S. Supreme Court held that you can’t put a mentally retarded person to death because they can’t fully understand what is going on,” said Phoenix attorney Dan Barr. “It would violate the 8th Amendment and would be cruel and unusual punishment.

The Arizona Supreme Court re-examined Grell’s case, looking at evidence surrounding his mental status. Arizona law defines mental retardation as a condition defined by three indicators, significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, significant impairment in adaptive behavior, and an onset before age 18.

Evidence highlighted in court documents includes a series of IQ tests taken by Grell between 1981 and 1989. The average of the tests was below 70, which qualified Grell as having significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning.

“The court found that he was mentally retarded and the result is he will spend the rest of his life in prison,” said Barr.

Grell’s defense attorney, Treasure VanDreumel, released the following statement to 3TV:

“In light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision holding that societal standards of decency and humanity precludes the imposition of the death penalty upon mentally retarded persons by any State no matter how horrific the crime, we are proud of today’s recognition by the Arizona Supreme Court that Shawn Grell falls into that category. He will spend the rest of his natural life in prison. Justice has been served and for that we are grateful.”

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, whose office is involved in the capital appeals process, said he disagrees with the ruling.

“He was functioning…he had jobs. He knew right from wrong,” said Horne. “His adaptive functioning was such that he could qualify for capital punishment so I think the Arizona Supreme Court made a mistake.”

Kristen Salem’s mother, Amber Salem, told 3TV she was “upset” by Wednesday’s ruling.