On April 13, Judge Peter J. Messitte of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland vacated the death sentence of Kenneth J. Lighty, who had been convicted of a 2002 kidnapping resulting in death. Lighty had been convicted and sentenced to death in 2006 after the government pursued the death penalty against him—but not against his co-defendants—under the theory that Lighty shot and killed the victim.
Messitte vacated three of Lighty's convictions, vacated his death sentence, and ordered that he be resentenced on his conviction for kidnapping resulting in death. Lighty had been the last Maryland resident on federal death row. Messitte's opinion comes 12 years after a team of Venable lawyers, led by former partner Seth Rosenthal and associate Jonathan Hettleman (along with co-counsel from several federal public defenders' offices), began representing Lighty in federal capital post-conviction proceedings.
In 2012, the Venable team filed a petition to vacate Lighty's convictions and sentences. Over a period of years, the Venable team reinvestigated the case and, in 2019, filed a nearly 300-page merits brief supporting the 2012 petition, which presented substantial credible evidence that another man (who was never arrested or prosecuted for his role in the kidnapping) shot and killed the victim.
The merits brief also highlighted that Lighty was 19 years old at the time of the offense and that he had suffered a traumatic upbringing; the brief also presented substantial well-established scientific evidence showing that the brain does not fully develop until a person's mid-twenties. While all of this evidence was available at the time of Lighty's sentencing, none of it was presented to the jury to consider in deciding whether to sentence him to death.
Additionally, while on death row, Lighty earned his GED in 2008 and has become a prolific writer. In 2013, he published a book intended as a guide for young people on how to avoid the types of bad decisions that led to his incarceration. In 2019, he started a charitable organization with his goddaughter, which provides monthly meals to Washington residents experiencing hunger, housing instability, and homelessness.
In addition to Lighty's conviction for kidnapping resulting in death, he had been convicted of three firearm-related offenses in connection with the federal kidnapping offense. Since 2015, the Venable team has sought the invalidation of those convictions because more recent case law has determined that those offenses cannot be charged in conjunction with a federal kidnapping offense.
However, the jury that recommended Lighty's death sentence in 2006 had been instructed to consider those three invalid convictions during its deliberations. Therefore, the Venable team argued that not only must the court vacate the three unlawful firearms convictions, but it must also vacate his death sentence because of the possibility that those three convictions influenced the jury's decision to sentence him to death.
Judge Messitte agreed that because Lighty's three firearms-related convictions must be vacated, his death sentence must also be vacated, and he must be resentenced. The judge's decision entitles Lighty to a sentencing hearing—before a newly empaneled jury—to decide whether he should be resentenced to death. The decision also provides the government with an opportunity to decide against pursuing the death penalty again. The team looks forward to continuing to work on Lighty's behalf through his resentencing process to secure a sentence other than death.