Tongan death row inmate returns to court in death of US police officer

by Geoff Dornan, 'Oku 'i he konga taupotu taha ki lalo 'o e talanoa ni ha fakamatala 'i he lea faka-Tonga

The man convicted of murdering University of Nevada, Reno Police Officer George Sullivan will get one more day in court to review whether he should face the death penalty.

Siaosi Vanisi was convicted of ambushing Sgt. Sullivan in his patrol car and killing him with an axe on Jan. 13, 1998. The jury sentenced him to die for the crime.

The Nevada Supreme Court has already upheld the conviction but this past week 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.

Instead, 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.

“Vanisi was not in a delusional state such that he could not know or understand the nature and capacity of his act,” the court wrote. The court order points out that Vanisi repeatedly told others he planned to murder a police officer and steal his weapon and radio, that he ambushed the victim at night and fled Nevada, before being arrested in Utah.

“These actions indicate that Vanisi appreciated the wrongfulness of his actions and that post conviction counsel did not act unreasonably in not pursuing (an insanity claim),” the court wrote.

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