Indianapolis Star Editorial
February 19, 2005
Our position is:The state’s repeated mistakes in a death penalty case call into question the fairness of the system.
Zolo Azania’s death penalty case has been languishing in Indiana courts for more than 23 years. Although death sentences are rarely carried out quickly in Indiana, the Azania case has been delayed largely because of mistakes made by the state.
Azania, formerly Rufus Averhart, was convicted in a 1981 fatal shooting of a Gary police officer. He was sentenced to death in April 1982 in Allen County, where the trial had been moved because of pre-trial publicity.
But the sentence was flawed from the start.
In May 1993, the Indiana Supreme Court let stand the conviction but threw out the death sentence. The court found that the state had failed to share gunshot residue reports with the defense and Azania had received poor legal representation at sentencing.
The case was returned to Allen County, where Azania received the death penalty again in 1996. The sentence was overturned a second time, however, in November 2002. The Supreme Court cited a defective jury selection process that had systematically excluded blacks. Azania is black.
More than two years later, the case remains unresolved. It is now back in Allen County for a third sentencing trial.
Three consecutive Fort Wayne judges assigned to the case and an assistant prosecutor from Lake County have stepped aside, causing lengthy delays. Two of the judges were disqualified for conflicts of interest and the other left the bench to enter an alcohol rehabilitation center.
An assistant prosecutor begged off the case in June 2004, claiming she couldn’t keep up with the court’s orders to comply with discovery. It isn’t difficult to see why she reached that conclusion. The case is more than two decades old and all of the key witnesses have died.
Almost a year ago, the case was assigned to Boone County Judge Steve David, who has rightly expressed concern about the delays. He also should question why prosecutors oppose holding the trial in Lake County, where the crime was committed. And why the state continues to pursue the death penalty in a case that should’ve been resolved years ago.