Death row inmate Seth Penalver has been acquitted of three first-degree murder charges and will soon be released from Florida’s death row.
Penalver, 39, was charged in the killing of Casimir “Butch Casey” Sucharski, Sharon Anderson, and Marie Rogers in 1994. The case has become well-known around Broward County, due to a series of twists and turns, and the fact that the two previous trials in the case were two of the longest in the county’s history. Those familiar with it often call it the “Nickelodeon case.”
Sucharski, who was the owner of a bar called Casey’s Nickelodeon, Anderson and Rogers were killed during a home invasion at Sucharski’s home in July 1994. The killings were caught on tape by a surveillance camera mounted near the ceiling. According to the Sun Sentinel, the footage “showed two armed men forcing their way into the house through a back sliding door shortly after 7:15 a.m. Over the next 22 minutes, the victims were terrorized and Sucharski was pistol-whipped. Then, the video shows all three being shot execution style in the back of the head. Unaware a video camera was running, one killer removed the blue T-shirt he’d used to cover his face. Police say that killer was [Pablo] Ibar.”
Ibar and Penalver were arrested two months later and indicted for murder, armed robbery and burglary. At the first trial, during which they were tried together as co-defendants, the trial ended with a hung jury. The trial stretched over nine months and was reportedly the most expensive trial held in the county.
The two were tried again, but separately, in 2000. At his second trial, which lasted six months, Penalver was convicted on all charges and sentenced to death. Ibar was also found guilty and sent to the state’s death row.
However, the Supreme Court overturned Penalver’s conviction on appeal in 2006 and granted him a new trial. According to the Sun Sentinel, the main reason was that “the video was so poor the justices couldn’t tell if Penalver was the killer who wore a hat and sunglasses.”
Penalver’s third trial began in July. The prosecutor relied on testimony from Penalver’s ex-girlfriend, who originally identified Penalver from a still pulled from the surveillance tape. But she later recanted, saying she only identified him because detectives told her he was one of the two men.
According to the Sentinel, “defense lawyer Hilliard Moldof tore into the prosecution’s case, saying it relied on unreliable identifications made by unreliable witnesses. He said the other man on the videotape was likely another criminal associate of Ibar who has since been deported.”
After a five-month trial and ten days of deliberating, the jury delivered their verdict of not guilty on all charges. They decided there was not enough evidence to be sure without a doubt that it was Penalver in the video. According to Sentinel reporter Rafael Olmeda‘s report, “Penalver wept, got off his chair, kneeled in apparent prayer, stood up, took deep breaths and repeatedly embraced defense attorney Hilliard Moldof, who also wept.”
Penalver meets the Death Penalty Information Center’s criteria for inclusion on the list of death row exonerees, and will become the 142 exoneree since 1976 and the 24th from Florida.
“That’s one exoneration for every three executions,” Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, wrote in a press release distributed Friday. “How many more innocent people will be sentenced to die in Florida before our state leaders realize that this is a fatal problem that cannot be fixed ?”