Death penalty exploration process begins in Independence triple homicide

Federal authorities have begun the process that will determine whether prosecutors seek death sentences for two men charged in a November triple homicide in Independence.

But a final decision, which would come from Attorney General Eric Holder, likely is months away, lawyers cautioned.

A federal grand jury charged Kevin M. Finley, 33, Raul Soto, 22, and nine others in December for their alleged roles in the deaths the month before of Maria Hernandez, her boyfriend, Tomas Dominguez, and her son, Antonio Hernandez, during a home invasion at 1505 South Pope Ave.

Finley and Soto each face three death-penalty-eligible charges of using a firearm in a drug trafficking crime that results in death.

Lawyers representing Soto said in a joint statement they are prepared for a long process.

“The procedures involved in a federal death penalty case are complex and time consuming,” Brian Gaddy and Lance Sandage said. “We remain hopeful that the death penalty is ultimately not pursued in this case.”

Prosecutors declined to comment, citing confidentiality rules that prevent them from disclosing, even to defendants at this stage, whether they want to seek the death penalty.

In recent court filings, defense lawyers have asked for permission to hire investigators to help study their clients and develop arguments that the death penalty is inappropriate.

Top Justice Department officials in Washington review all cases in which a death sentence is possible, explained Fred Duchardt, a local defense lawyer who is not representing anyone in this case. Officials there can approve seeking a death sentence, decline it or even order a local prosecutor to ask jurors for a death sentence even if he or she doesn’t want it.

“The decision is ultimately in Washington,” Duchardt said.

Typically, defense lawyers in cases eligible for the death penalty first present their arguments to local U.S. attorneys. After the local prosecutors make up their mind, their recommendations are forwarded to a review panel in Washington, where defense lawyers make a second presentation.