9Th circuit vacates death sentence of Arizona man

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Michael Joe Murdaugh By Andrew Michalscheck Michael Joe Murdaugh By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the murder conviction and vacated the death sentence of an Arizona man for a 1995 killing in which he dismembered the victim and buried the body parts.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that Michael Joe Murdaugh should get a new sentencing hearing because he was sentenced to death by a judge in November 2001 and not a jury.

A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring v. Arizona held that juries and not judges must decide whether a defendant is eligible for the death penalty.

Calls to Murdaugh's attorneys for comment weren't immediately returned Friday afternoon.

Murdaugh, 59, was convicted of first-degree murder in January 2000. He was accused of severely beating David Reynolds and robbing him of $180 and a cellphone on June 26, 1995.

Reynolds showed up at Murdaugh's home after meeting Murdaugh's girlfriend earlier that day and exchanging phone numbers, according to court records.

The girlfriend told Murdaugh that Reynolds had propositioned her and Murdaugh decided to teach Reynolds a lesson, prosecutors said. Murdaugh took Reynolds into a barn at gunpoint, beat him and robbed him, then bound and gagged him and left him inside the trunk of a vehicle overnight.

The next morning, Reynolds was beaten to death with a baseball bat and jackhammer spike, and authorities said Murdaugh took the body to a forest campsite in the Walnut Creek area 40 miles northwest of Prescott.

He severed Reynolds' head and hands, pulled out his teeth and buried the body parts in the forest, court documents show.

Reynolds' two gravesites were discovered a week later. Murdaugh was arrested after he went to a Prescott-area hospital for treatment of a cut on his leg unrelated to the murder.