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Reno to decide murder penalty

The attorney general will determine whether prosecutors should seek the death penalty for Allen Blackthorne.

By ANITA KUMAR and WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 7, 2000


SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Allen Blackthorne will have to wait several months to learn whether he could face the death penalty on charges he conspired to kill his former wife in Sarasota two years ago.

Although defense attorneys and federal prosecutors will make a recommendation on punishment, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ultimately will decide whether prosecutors should seek the death penalty or life in prison for Blackthorne.

For the two years he was under suspicion, Blackthorne maintained he had nothing do with the slaying of Sheila Bellush, who was found shot and stabbed in her home on Nov. 7, 1997, as her 2-year-old quadruplets wandered in blood near her body.

This week, after Blackthorne's arrest in Texas, his attorney Richard Lubin of West Palm Beach said he's ready to go to trial.

"He's innocent," Lubin said. "The bottom line is whatever he is charged with, he's innocent of it all."

FBI agents and U.S. marshals arrested Blackthorne on Tuesday at Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio. He was accused of federal charges of domestic violence and conspiring to commit a murder for hire, the latter carrying a maximum penalty of death. He also was accused of a Texas charge alleging that he caused the death by entering a conspiracy to harm her.

Blackthorne, held without bail at a federal detention center in San Antonio, will be arraigned Wednesday and have a hearing to determine whether bail should be set.

It will be much longer before he learns what punishment he could face.

Months from now, before Blackthorne's trial even begins, Reno will decide whether federal prosecutors should seek the death penalty if a jury finds him guilty. But the trial judge has the final say on his punishment if he is convicted.

A panel of Justice Department attorneys will convene over the next few months to review written or oral recommendations from defense attorneys and federal prosecutors. Reno will review the panel's findings and ask questions before making her decision.

Each year, the attorney general decides the fate of about 100 death penalty cases. Reno usually decides in favor of the death penalty about 25 percent of the time, said John Russell, a Justice Department spokesman.

Twenty inmates are on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind. They include Timothy McVeigh, sentenced to death for bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Criminals who plead guilty usually make a deal with prosecutors so they can avoid a death sentence, Russell said.

That is unlikely to happen in this case.

Lubin, Blackthorne's lead attorney, steadfastly maintained his client's innocence this week, even though authorities now say they suspected Blackthorne almost from the moment the body was discovered.

The defense team, which includes attorneys in Florida and Texas, began preparing for trial immediately after the murder. After two years, Lubin said they are ready.

"We knew they we're going to eventually charge him," he said. "We're ready."

Prosecutors believe Blackthorne was the mastermind behind a plan to kill Bellush, six weeks after she moved to Sarasota from San Antonio with her new husband, Jamie Bellush.

A golfing buddy of Blackthorne's, Daniel Alex Rocha, and a friend of Rocha's, Samuel Gonzales, are each serving prison terms in Texas for conspiring to harm Mrs. Bellush.

Jose Luis Del Toro, 23, accused of shooting Bellush, fled to Mexico but was later captured and returned to the United States. He awaits a trial in Sarasota in July, though prosecutors in Florida were forced to waive the death penalty to win his extradition from Mexico.

Gonzales has testified that Rocha hired him and that he, in turn, hired his cousin, Del Toro, to hurt Bellush for a $14,000 payment. Gonzales told authorities he thought Blackthorne hired Rocha, but he was never a party to conversations between the two men.

Both Rocha, serving a life term, and Gonzales, serving 19 years, are expected to testify in state and federal trials of Blackthorne, prosecutors said.

No trial date has been set for Blackthorne, though the federal case is expected to be presented to a jury first.

Blackthorne's wife, Maureen, said Thursday her family is holding together despite her husband's troubles. But Lubin said Mrs. Blackthorne was having a difficult time explaining to their children why "their dad was dragged away."

Mrs. Blackthorne said she just wants her husband to have a chance to prove he had nothing to do with the murder.

"There's only one thing I have to say about this thing," she said. "My husband is innocent of these charges. And now we are afforded the opportunity to prove his innocence. Now we have the chance."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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