MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – A woman convicted in one of the most notorious crimes in southwest Alabama over the past couple of decades has won a new sentencing hearing.
But the narrow ruling from the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals probably means the odds remain long that she will leave death row.
Heather Leavell Keaton in 2015 became the first woman in Mobile County ever to be sentenced to death. Then-Circuit Judge Rick Stout followed the jury’s 11-1 recommendation and imposed the sentence, declaring that she had caused “needless suffering and death and unexplained malice” in the death of Chase DeBlase. The jury also convicted her of reckless manslaughter in the death of Natalie DeBlase.
But the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Tuesday that Stout erred by not giving Keaton the opportunity to make a formal statement at the sentencing hearing. On Wednesday, Judge Brandy Hambright, who inherited Stout’s docket when he retired, set a new hearing in this case for Tuesday next week.
To a defendant on death row, any victory is a welcome one. But Keaton will have limited opportunity to change her fate.
“To be clear, the rial court is not to hold a full capital-conviction sentencing hearing, which has already occurred,” the judges wrote.
That means Keaton will not be able to call new witnesses or present new evidence to mitigate her conduct. Her chances are limited whatever she says at the new hearing. Hambright will have just two choices – re-impose the death penalty or sentence the defendant to live in prison without possibility of parole.
At Keaton’s first sentencing hearing, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich called her a “manipulative, deceitful and morally unhinged woman.”
The facts of the case were gruesome.
Authorities charged Keaton and her common-law husband, John DeBlase with capital murder after finding the bodies of DeBlase’s two young children three months apart in 2010. Natalie was 5 years old and had been fatally choked after getting duct-taped and stuffed in a closet for several hours. Authorities found her body in the woods near Citronelle in March 2010.
In June, authorities found the body of 3-year-old Chase in a wooded area just over the Mississippi line in Vancleave. According to testimony, he had been taped to a broom handle and choked to death.
A woman who had shared a jail cell with the defendant testified that Keaton told her she hated Natalie DeBlase and fed both her and her brother spaghetti laced with anti-freeze. Testimony also indicated that before dumping the second victim’s body, the couple stopped to buy a video game – a game they now would have time to play with no parental responsibilities.
Convicted of two counts of capital murder in 2014, co-defendant John DeBlase remains on death row at Holman Correctional Facility.