Death penalty tossed in '98 restaurant murders

Joaquin Arevalo

Joaquin Arevalo

The death penalty has been dismissed for the man convicted of a 1998 double murder at a Lawrenceville chicken restaurant. Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter is none too pleased.

“It’s absurd,” Porter said Tuesday. “It’s this kind of thing that takes away the validity that the death penalty has.”

On April 6, 1998, Jaoquin Enrique Arevalo and Ernesto Mejia entered through the back door of Tanner’s, the popular Gwinnett Drive chicken eatery that Arevalo had been fired from the previous week. During the ensuing robbery — aided by Arevalo’s brother, an employee who left said back door open — Arevalo shot manager Marc Ratthaus and cook Adolfo Gonzales in the back of the head. Both died.

In October 1999, Arevalo was sentenced to death for both murders.

That ruling was tossed out last week by Butts County Superior Court Judge Dane Perkins, who cited the defense team’s failure to present evidence at trial of Arevalo’s alleged mental retardation, post-traumatic stress disorder and organic brain damage. Those issues weren’t appropriately broached until habeas corpus hearings in 2006 and 2007, Perkins said.

“This Court therefore finds that trial counsel’s performance in the sentencing phase was deficient and that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different,” Perkins wrote. “Accordingly, counsel’s performance was ineffective and Petitioner’s sentence must be vacated.”

Arevalo’s conviction remains, but the native of El Salvador is no longer facing the death penalty. Perkins’ opinion — which also denies Arevalo’s habeas corpus, or wrongful imprisonment, claim — comes nearly seven years after the original hearings were held.

That’s what has Porter fired up.

“I’m furious,” he said. “The judge sits on it basically for seven years and then now issues an order overturning the death penalty but retaining the conviction. … Now I don’t even know if I can re-try the case. I don’t know if the victims want me to re-try the case.”

“If the error had been that clear,” he added, “you would think he would’ve ruled on it and we could’ve brought it back while everything (was fresh).”

Documents said that the court could not rule that Arevalo was mentally retarded “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but that experts testified that he had an IQ below 70, marking “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning.” PTSD claims, “undisputed by any of the evaluating experts,” stem from Arevalo’s growing up during a civil war in his native country.

Arevalo also reportedly has organic brain syndrome, which could have affected his reasoning and ability to make rational decisions.

All that should’ve been presented to a jury trial, not only in habeas corpus proceedings, Perkins argued. Porter, though, said all that should be moot.

“If you’re smart enough to plan a robbery, if you’re smart enough to execute the manager, if he’s smart enough to let his brother get away …,” Porter said. “All that was just ignored.”

Perkins had jurisdiction to toss the death penalty because the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, which carries out the state’s executions, is located in Butts County.