Putman granted hearing on legality of murder sentence

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A Wayne County judge and the state Attorney General have opined that the sentence of "life without the possibility of parole" given to a former Carter County man for first degree murder seven years ago should be vacated due to the illegality of the sentence.
   An opinion issued last month by Judge Steve Hargrove and received in Carter County Circuit Court on Thursday stated that William Matney Putman was entitled to habeas corpus relief to vacate his sentence of life without parole on the charge of first degree murder.
   An opinion submitted by Attorney General Paul G. Summers concurred that Putman's sentence for the murder should be vacated and the case remanded to Carter County Criminal Court.
   Putman was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole by Judge Lynn Brown in June 1995 for the murder of convenience store clerk Angela Montgomery in June 1993. His habeas corpus writ argued that the sentence of "life without the possibility of parole" was not an applicable sentence when the crime was committed.
   He was indicted one count of felony murder for the robbery of a convenience store in Valley Forge that occurred in June 14, 1993. According to state statutes, life without parole did not become a legal sentence for a defendant convicted of first degree murder until July 1, 1993.
   Putman pleaded guilty to first degree murder in February 1995. At the time of Montgomery's murder, he was on parole after serving time for third degree burglary, grand larceny and aggravated kidnapping in 1987, according to court records.
   He had also served time for 1st degree burglary and aggravated assault in 1986, according to the TDOC. Putman has been incarcerated at the South Central Correctional Center in Clifton since 1995.
   In addition to the conviction for murder, Putman was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated robbery and 10 years for attempted aggravated robbery that were sentenced consecutively. The opinion to vacate the life without parole sentence specifies the habeas corpus writ does not effect Putman's sentences for the robbery charges.
   The Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Sept. 2000 that the "life without parole" sentence had been illegally handed down following a habeas corpus writ by filed by Jonathan Stephenson.
   In that case, Stephenson was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in 1990. The jury imposed a sentence of death for the first-degree murder conviction and the court imposed a sentence of 60 years for the conspiracy offense.
   The state Supreme Court had affirmed both convictions on appeal, but remanded for resentencing due to a fundamental error that occurred in the sentencing phase of the trial, which rendered the jury's verdict a nullity.
   On remand, the parties reached an agreement by which Stephenson was sentenced to life without parole for the first-degree murder offense and to 60 years for the conspiracy offense. In 1998, Stephenson filed a habeas corpus suit challenging, among other grounds, the sentence of life without parole.
   The Supreme Court ruled that the sentence of life without parole was not a statutorily authorized punishment at the time the appellant committed the offense of first-degree murder. The Court reversed the judgment of the state Court of Criminal Appeals and remanded the Stephenson case to the trial court.
   Brown denied a writ of habeas corpus filed by Putman citing illegality of the sentence in a hearing in 1999.
   In September, Brown also denied a petition from Donna Jean Sexton to set aside her "no contest" plea to first degree murder in the case. Sexton and Putman were romantically linked and together when the robbery/murder occurred.
   A writ of habeas corpus will be issued only when it appears upon the face of the judgment or the record of the proceedings upon which the judgment is rendered that a court lacked jurisdiction or authority to sentence a defendant or that the sentence has expired.
   A court date to hear Putman's habeas corpus appeal in Criminal Court has not been set, according to Circuit Court clerks.