Category Archives: Florida

The Latest From Florida’s Death Row

Florida Passes Bill to Compensate Exonerated Death Row Inmate

Justice was a long time coming, and a day late.

But it did arrive, with the eleventh-hour passage of a bill Friday that will let Florida pay James Richardson for wrongly convicting him of murder and imprisoning him for 21 years. After years of failed efforts, Richardson’s supporters persuaded the Florida Legislature to change a law that had left him in a legal limbo since 1989.

The Senate took the final step, passing the bill unanimously at 9:15 p.m., in the closing minutes of the lawmakers’ 60-day session.

New Death Sentence: Judge Gives Death Sentence to Quentin Truehill

A death sentence given for the man who kidnapped and killed an FSU grad student and dumped his body in St. Augustine.

A St. Johns County jury recommended the death sentence for Quentin Truehill in March. He was convicted in February of first degree murder and kidnapping.

Custody Still in Flux for Flagler Killer’s Daughter:

Kyla was 1 year old on Aug. 21, 2007, when her father, William Gregory, sneaked into a Flagler Beach house and killed Kyla’s 17-year-old mother, Skyler Meekins, and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Daniel Dyer. Gregory was convicted of first-degree murder in April 2011 and now sits on death row.

Kyla is now 7 and where she will spend the rest of her childhood remains unclear.

Nelson Serrano’s Lawyers Seek New Trial

Condemned mass murderer Nelson Serrano, who’s on Florida’s death row for gunning down four people at a Bartow factory in 1997, should get a new trial because recently discovered evidence has put the jury’s 2006 guilty verdict in doubt, his lawyers said Tuesday.

Florida Death Row Inmate Seeks Clemency in Last Chance Before Execution Date is Set

The case of Charles Finney, a 60-year-old man on death row in Florida, is now before the clemency authorities. He maintains that he did not commit the murder for which he was sentenced to death. In Florida, an execution date is set if and when clemency is denied.

The Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction and death penalty sentence of a Pensacola woman convicted of beating a 19-year-old with a crowbar, shocking her with a stun gun and then setting her on fire, according to the State Attorney’s Office.

In 2012, Tina Lasonya Brown, 43, was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Audreanna Zimmerman.

Editorial: Don’t Miss This Opportunity to Reform the Florida Death Penalty

The death penalty is likely to be with us until the U.S. Supreme Court or the Florida Legislature undergoes serious change. But whether one is an opponent of the death penalty (as the ACLU surely is) or a proponent of state executions, we should all insist that the possibility of horrible and irreversible error in Florida’s implementation of the death penalty is minimized.


That is the point of legislation pending in both Florida’s House and Senate — SB 334 by Sen. Thad Altman R-Melbourne, and HB 467 Rep. Jose Javier Rodriquez, D-Miami, both entitled “Sentencing in Capital Felonies.” Sadly, it does not appear that either chamber is willing to take up this issue.

Florida Judge Who Imposed Death Penalty Reflects on the Practice

It was Ulmer who presided over the murder trial of John Henry, whose death warrant was recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott and who is scheduled to be executed June 18 if doctors determine he is sane.

In Ulmer’s court, Henry was convicted of repeatedly stabbing his wife, Suzanne, in the neck while her 5-year-old son was in another room in their Zephyrhills home. Henry covered her with a rug, smoked a cigarette and then drove his stepson to a wooded area in Hillsborough County, where he stabbed the boy to death.

When it came time for sentencing, Ulmer appeared more shaken than Henry. His voice quavered as he read the declaration the state required with any death sentence.

Guest Column: Florida’s Death Penalty is Archaic

It is irrefutable folks; we kill a lot of innocent people. If that wasn’t bad enough, because of our lengthy appeals process, killing people is very expensive. It is time to bring a little more sanity to our punitive approach.


Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Latest From Florida’s Death Row

Jury Recommends Death Penalty for Brandon Bradley in Brevard Deputy Murder: 

The jury which convicted Brandon Bradley of murder recommended he receive the death sentence for the murder of Brevard County Deputy Barbara Pill during a traffic stop in 2012.

A judge will now decide whether to accept the recommendation, or hand down a life sentence.

The vote was 10-2, and revealed to the court after three hours of deliberations.

Read more on the case here.

Florida Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Toney Davis: 

The Court ruled against Davis’s appeal of his conviction for the 1995 rape and murder of Caleasha Cunningham in Duval County. The case summary from the Florida Commission on Capital Cases is as follows:

Toney Davis lived with Gwen Cunningham from September 1992 until 12/09/92.  On 12/09/92, Gwen Cunningham left her two-year-old daughter, Caleasha, in the care of Davis while she ran an errand.  An acquaintance of Davis, Thomas Moore, arrived at the apartment around 12:45 p.m.  Davis answered the door with Caleasha draped over his arm.  Davis told Moore that Caleasha had choked on a French fry, and while Moore called 911, Davis gave Caleasha mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  Prior to the 911 call, neighbors reported hearing thumping noises and Davis’ raised voice coming from the apartment.

Caleasha was wet, unconscious, and had blood in her mouth when she was examined at the apartment.  She was naked from the waist down, although she was fully clothed when Gwen Cunningham left the apartment.  Caleasha was revived, but later died on 12/10/92.

The emergency room doctor who examined Caleasha noticed bruising, swelling of the brain, and pools of blood in the skull, as well as injuries that suggested vaginal penetration by a penis, finger, or other object.  The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage, caused by four blows to the head.

Caleasha’s hair bow was found in the bed and her blood was found on the sheet, pillowcase, in the bathroom, and on the crotch of Davis’ shorts and underwear.

Florida Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Robert Hendrix: 

Robert Hendrix, 47, was convicted in the August 1990 murders of his cousin Elmer Scott and Scott’s wife, Michelle, in Lake County. According to the Orlando Sentinel,  Scott was killed to keep him from testifying in an upcoming armed robbery case that could have resulted in Hendrix serving life in prison. Scott’s wife was then killed because she could identify Hendrix.

Hendrix is slated for execution on April 23. His attorneys argued that he had ineffective counsel, that the trial judge was biased, and that the prosecutors committed a Brady violation by withholding evidence about an informer. However, the Court ruled that his claims were without merit, and at this time his execution is set to proceed.


Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Latest From Florida’s Death Row

Editor’s note: I apologize for the lack of updates lately. I’ve been juggling several projects recently and the blog has suffered. Updates will likely continue to be sporadic for the next month or so, as I’ll be traveling. Updates are a bit more regular via my Twitter feed, at

Here’s the latest headlines involving Florida’s death row:

I’ve previously posted an article about the proposed legislation from  Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Joe Negron that would “streamline” Florida’s death penalty process, by requiring judges at the Circuit Court and Supreme Court levels to speed up appeals. The legislation prompted a flurry of editorials and criticism from Florida papers, with many calling for a review of the flaws rather than a speeding up of executions. I’ve listed and linked to these editorials below, for your perusal:

Florida Paper Examines Unique Florida Law on State’s Death Sentencing Requirements: Two different articles in the Tampa Bay Times recently examined the state’s rules on jury sentencing in capital cases. Florida is unique in that while defendants must be found guilty by unanimous vote, when it comes to the sentencing hearing, where the choice is made whether the defendant will live or die, a simple majority is all that is required. The two articles are listed below:

Jury Recommends Death Penalty for John Lee in Sarasota Double Killing: Jurors have recommended the death penalty for a 49-year-old man after convicting him in the death of his girlfriend and a neighbor in southwest Florida.

Florida Officer Linked to Two Wrongful Convictions: According to the Sun Sentinel, former Broward County Sheriff’s Major, Tony Fantigrassi, who has been linked to the wrongful conviction of Jerry Frank Townsend, is now being sued for allegedly coercing a confession in the Anthony Caravella case.

Lawmakers Looking To  Florida’s Death Penalty Process: Florida is one of the top states in the nation with the most number of people facing the death penalty—Close to half of which have been on death row for at least 20 years. And, a group of lawmakers is now trying to streamline the death penalty process through a couple of measures, but it’s facing much opposition.

Convicted Killer Loses Appeal to Overturn Death Penalty Conviction:  For the fifth time, a convicted killer’s appeal to bar his execution has been denied by the Florida Supreme Court. Attorneys for 61-year-old Roger Cherry have tried for years to have his death sentence overturned, claiming Cherry is mentally disabled.

State to Seek Death Penalty For Barry Davis:  Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore announced Tuesday that the state will seek the death penalty for Barry Davis if he is convicted of killing Santa Rosa Beach resident John Hughes and his girlfriend, Heidi Rhodes of Panama City.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Another Florida Inmate Dies Awaiting Execution

Editor’s note: Many of the details in this post are drawn from the blog of a death row inmate, and as with much of the information about what happens behind the prison walls, I have no way of verifying with absolute certainty what that inmate says. Some details have been corroborated by other prison visitors and inmates, but without official details, there is little hope of ever knowing for certain what took place. 

After several months of illness, which I’ve previously covered here and here, 49-year-old death row inmate Tom Wyatt died Friday, Feb. 8. The cause of death was not disclosed, due to federal health privacy laws.

Wyatt’s failing health has been documented by his friend and fellow inmate  William Van Poyck, who blogs at Death Row Diary. According to Van Poyck’s posts, Wyatt first became ill in August 2012, when Van Poyck wrote Wyatt “groggily awoke to find his face and pillow covered in blood and his tongue bitten about half off. He had no memory of what occurred.”

Van Poyck writes that over the next few days following what he suspected was a seizure or stroke, Tom’s health continued to deteriorate with symptoms including slurred speech, severe headaches and signs of compromised mental capacity. He was seen by a dentist for damage caused to his teeth during the incident where he injured his tongue, but was not treated by a doctor for his illness, despite both his and Van Poyck’s attempts to seek treatment.

Van Poyck’s account states that on Tuesday, September 11 at 7:40pm “I heard Tom collapse in his cell.” Only then was Wyatt transported to Shands Hospital in Gainesville and seen by a doctor, where he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. Doctors also found a cancerous mass in his chest at that time. Eighteen hours after his surgery, he was removed from the hospital and returned to his cell at Florida State Prison. From Van Poyck’s account:

“That was on the 13th. For the next 5 days he laid on his bunk, often moaning, while receiving no medication at all (despite the surgeons having prescribed many drugs).

Finally, after 5 days he began getting some, but not all, of the prescribed meds (no pain meds, of course). Importantly, he did not get the most crucial one, the one to stop his brain from swelling. So he was suffering mightily until just 5 or 6 days ago when he finally saw a free-world oncologist who was shocked that he was not getting the brain swelling medication.

After another 3 days he finally began getting that one and he told me the relief was immediate. I knew it was bad when he kept telling me he had fluid coming out of his ears. He’s been told he’ll get chemo and radiation treatment but that remains to be seen.”

In the most recent update on Wyatt’s health, Van Poyck wrote that “my old friend Tom—just 4 months ago had a hale and hardy soul, now a mere envelope of cancer-gnawed flesh and bones —was removed from his cell by wheelchair, too weak to offer anything but meager protest, and transferred to the one place he dreaded going to, our notoriously filthy, blood spattered clinic holding cell.”

At the time of his death, Wyatt still had an appeal pending in the federal courts.

Wyatt was sentenced to death in 1991 for the 1988 killings of three Domino’s pizza employees. According to the case summary, Wyatt and another man, Michael Lovette, escaped from a prison work crew in North Carolina and fled to Florida. In Jacksonville, they stole a car, which contained a .38 caliber handgun. They used the gun to rob a Vero Beach Domino’s and fatally shot three of the employees. Officials said Wyatt also killed a Tampa-area woman.

As far as I know, Wyatt is the third Florida death row inmate to die of causes other than execution in 2013. In January, Jesus Delgado committed suicide and Peter Ventura, the second-oldest inmate on the row, died, presumably of natural causes although no official details have been released.

Related Reading:

Florida Death Row Inmate Dies Awaiting Execution

Tommy Wyatt: Death Row Inmate Dies in Prison 25 Years After Vero Beach Domino’s Pizza Shop Murders

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Florida Judge Throws Out Death Sentence in 1974 Miami-Dade Murders

This article originally ran in The Miami Herald. I’m reposting it for easy access, but you can view the original here

By David Ovalle, for The Miami Herald

As agents closed in on him in the woods of Southwest Miami-Dade, kidnapper Thomas Knight shot his two hostages execution-style, then buried himself in the mud atop $50,000 in stolen cash.

The savage 1974 murders of Bay Harbor Islands businessman Sydney Gans and his wife Lillian landed Knight on Death Row — but the legal case is still churning after nearly four decades.

The latest chapter: a Miami federal judge late last year tossed out Knight’s death sentence for the Gans murders. Prosecutors are now appealing the ruling.

Thomas Knight's original booking photo

Thomas Knight’s original booking photo

Knight, 61, nevertheless remains on Death Row for a third murder: the fatal 1980 stabbing of corrections officer Richard Burke.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s a slap in face,” said Judd Shapiro, 48, the Ganses’ grandson.

Said the Ganses’ daughter, Harriet Shapiro, now 72: “Even though I have no hatred in my heart and I don’t live with anger, I would be very happy to see him dead and stand there when they kill him.”

Only two prisoners have been on Florida’s Death Row longer than Knight. His murder of the Ganses, while unfamiliar to newer generations of South Floridians, was a major story in July 1974.

Sydney Gans, 64, owned a successful paper bag company and a minor league baseball team, the Miami Beach Flamingos. He taught his grandson to play baseball and served as a leader at his synagogue.

Gans also employed parolees looking for a second chance. Knight was one of them. He had worked for the paper company for 10 days when he kidnapped Sydney Gans at rifle point.

Knight forced him to drive to the Gans’ home, where he kidnapped Lillian Gans. The three drove to downtown Miami, where Knight forced Sydney Gans to enter a bank and withdraw $50,000.

Knight — armed with a semi-automatic .30-caliber carbine — held Lillian Gans in the back of the businessman’s car. Inside, Gans alerted the bank manager, who called authorities.

Gans, fearing for his wife’s safety, returned to the car. A slew of agents and cops covertly tailed the car as Knight ordered Gans to drive to West Miami-Dade.

In a blunder that still riles the Gans relatives today, agents lost track of the car. In a secluded wooded area at Southwest 132nd Street and 117th Avenue, Knight shot each of the Gans with a bullet to the neck. He disappeared as heavily armed officers swarmed the woods.

For hours, authorities scoured the woods. Teargas was deployed. A deputy found Knight buried in the mud, the money and the rifle underneath his body.

Not long after his arrest, Knight and a group of inmates escaped the Dade County Jail. He remained a fugitive for 101 days until agents burst in on him holed up in a New Smyrna Beach shack.

Judd Shapiro — 9 when his grandparents were killed — remembers that while Knight was on the lam, a teacher was assigned to guard him while at school.

“Every child at some point comes to the realization that the world is not necessarily a safe place, and for me it came at a young age and in an extreme fashion,” said Judd, now an English teacher.

A jury convicted Knight in 1975. A judge sent him to Death Row.

While there in October 1980, Knight thrust a sharpened spoon into the chest of corrections officer Burke, 48. The reason: the prison would not let Knight see his mother, who was making her first visit.

Then-Gov. Bob Graham signed his death warrant. Scheduled execution date: March 3, 1981.

The prison system’s superintendent later remembered Knight’s reaction to the news: “How can you execute me when I haven’t even had my trial yet about killing the guard?”

A federal judge later stayed the execution. Knight indeed went to trial for Burke’s murder, and was sentenced to die in January 1983.

By 1987, a federal appeals court threw out the Gans death sentence, ruling Knight should have been allowed to present character and background witnesses during a penalty hearing.

Knight’s 1996 resentencing was held under heavy security.

By then, he had grown a beard and changed his named to Askari Abdullah Muhammad. He proved too disruptive to keep in the courtroom, cursing daily at the judge and lawyers, hollering “ Allahu Akbar!” — “God is great” in Arabic.

The jury, in a 9-3 vote, recommended the death penalty, once again, for the Gans murders. Circuit Judge Rodolfo Sorondo Jr. agreed with the recommendation.

But it was a legal error in that 1996 re-sentencing that paved the way for Knight’s latest successful appeal, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled in November.

At the resentencing hearing , a Miami-Dade homicide detective recounted the words of a police helicopter pilot who never testified in previous court hearings. That, Jordan ruled, violated Knight’s right to confront and cross-examine witnesses.

Why was that testimony so important? The judge pointed out that defense lawyers claimed that Knight never planned to kill the husband and wife. Knight only shot the couple after he heard a police helicopter and suffered a schizophrenic “break,” defense attorneys claimed.

But prosecutors insisted to jurors that Knight never knew cops were covertly tailing him. As proof, they pointed to the detective’s testimony that the helicopter pilot did not arrive on the scene until well after the Ganses were dead.

“There is no question that the evidence about the helicopter was key,” Jordan wrote in a 56-page order.

Jordan also said prosecutors did not show all efforts were made to bring in the case’s original detective as a witness. Greg Smith, the now-retired Miami-Dade detective whose testimony was at the heart of Jordan’s decision, bristles at the ruling. The Florida Supreme Court, he pointed out, had already upheld the 1996 death sentence.

“I find laughable the thought that Thomas Knight killed the Ganses because of the police presence,” Smith said last week. “He wasn’t traveling to South Dade to take them on a picnic. He was going to kill them because they could identify him as their kidnapper.”

Jordan ruled that prosecutors must hold a new penalty phase for Knight, or agree to a life prison term.

Knight’s defense attorneys did not return calls for comment.

Prosecutors are asking a federal appeals court in Atlanta to overturn the judge’s decision. Jordan has since been named to that court, although he would not join any panel deciding on the case.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Florida Death Row Inmate Reportedly Commits Suicide

A Florida death row inmate at Union Correctional Institution has reportedly committed suicide, according to another inmate and prison visitors.

On his blog, Death Row Diary, William Van Poyck wrote: “a death row prisoner across the river at UCI committed suicide about 2 weeks ago (Carlos Delgado was his name).”

There was no Carlos Delgado on the Florida death row roster, however, there was a Jesus Delgado, who is now listed as deceased as of January 5. A representative for the Department of Corrections confirmed that he was deceased but said they could not release more details at this time.

Delgado, 47, tried to commit suicide in 2000, when according to a DOC press release, “Correctional officers found inmate Delgado on the floor of his cell about 1:00 am, removing a homemade rope from his neck made out of material from his inmate uniform. He was immediately treated by medical staff at the prison and then transported to University Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville for additional treatment and observation.”

It appears from an article written shortly after his suicide attempt that it was prompted by a proposal from the Department of Corrections to ban death row inmates from hugging and kissing their visiting family members. The article reported that “the no-touching proposal already has triggered an eight-day hunger strike by about 250 death row inmates, a suicide attempt by one condemned man, criticism from a Republican lawmaker and even the formation of an advocacy group of families of death row inmates.”

In his April 2000 suicide note, Delgado said:

“I have decided to give up my life in protest against this horrible atrocity that the state of Florida is subjecting upon us who are sentenced to die,” he wrote in Spanish. “They have decided that we no longer are to have any contact visits. The little bit that we now have will be taken away from us without any logical reason only to hurt us due to discerning biases against us who are sentenced to die by this state.

“I, Jesus Delgado, #658187, prefer to die before accepting this stupid rule that is senseless. If I cannot kiss or hug my dearest mother and my family members, then what sense is my corporal existence have in this world….The fact that we have been condemned to die does not signify that we are to be entombed alive in a building.”

Delgado was given two death sentences in Dade County in 1996 for the killings of Tomas and Violetta Rodriguez. According to the case summary given by the Florida Commission on Capital Cases, the couple were killed in their home on the evening of August 30, 1990. The Rodriguezes had sold their dry-cleaning business to Horatio Lamellas, whose daughter rain it, along with Delgado, who was her boyfriend. He had complained to the Rodriguezes that the machines did not work properly. Delgado became a suspect due to the evidence found at the crime scene and his complaints about the dry-cleaning business. He was not arrested until Dec. 23, 1992, more than two years after the crimes.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Gov. Scott Signs New Florida Death Warrant for Paul Howell

Paul Howell death warrant

Paul Howell death warrant

Just like Florida death row inmate William Van Poyck predicted, Gov. Rick Scott’s office announced Friday that he has signed another death warrant, this one for 47-year-old Paul Augustus Howell.

Howell was convicted of the 1992 death of Florida state trooper Jimmy Fulford. Fulford was performing a routine traffic stop on Interstate 10 when he opened a package that contained a pipe bomb. The bomb was hidden in a gift-wrapped microwave oven and was intended for Yolanda McCalister and Tammie Bailey, two women in Marianna who had knowledge of a 1991 drug-related murder Howell’s brother was allegedly tied to.

Allegedly, Howell, a former electronics technician, built the bomb, put it inside a microwave and connected the bomb’s detonator to the ovens interior light so that when the door was opened, the bomb would go off. He then put the microwave back in the box, gift wrapped it, rented a car and paid Lester Watson, a neighbor who had been out of prison for six months, to drive to Marianna and deliver the oven to the two women.

However, Fulford stopped the car for speeding and asked to search the vehicle. Jonathon King of the Orlando Sentinel has a detailed report of what happened next:

Fulford had the Madison dispatcher call the rental-car agency and found out that the car was under contract to Paul Howell. He then had the dispatcher call Howell at home in Broward County to verify Watson’s story.

Howell told the dispatcher that he had lent the car to Watson but had not given Watson permission to drive north. The dispatcher told Howell that the car would be impounded. Howell did not offer any information about what was in the trunk.

Because he was in Jefferson County, Fulford called the local sheriff to pick up Watson, whom he had arrested for driving without a license….Fulford was left to wait for a tow truck.

As he stood alone on the desolate roadway, the trooper again eyed the pink-and-blue package in the trunk. He picked it up and shook it. Something inside clunked. Fulford must have been sure some sort of evidence lay inside.

Using his penknife, he carefully cut away the paper and the cardboard box. Leaving the wrapping in the trunk, he pulled out the white microwave oven and took a few steps back.

In the slanting sunlight of late afternoon, he could probably see an object inside through the tinted oven window. The trooper bent down on one knee, tilted the oven up and opened the door.

Jimmy Fulfords watch stopped at 4:34 p.m.

Howell was sentenced to death for the crime in 1995. Watson was sentenced to 40 years.

Howell is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at Florida State Prison in Starke at 6 p.m. on Feb. 26. His execution date has derailed a murder trial in Tallahassee, which will now have to wait until March. Elijah James was scheduled to stand trial next week,  in the murder of his girlfriend Danielle Brown, but his attorney must now turn his attention to trying to save Howell from execution.

Related Reading: 

Scott Signs Death Warrant in Killing of a Florida State Trooper

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Florida Lawmaker Wants to Speed Up Executions

Editor’s Note: The article below, from Radley Balko for the Huffington Postis particularly interesting in light of the recent findings about how Florida stacks up nationally when it comes to the death penalty.    

Florida State Rep. Matt Gaetz is fed up with death row inmates and their endless appeals.

Florida has a broken death penalty system, delaying justice for killers and denying justice for victims. Of the 408 people currently on death row, 141 have been there longer than 20 years. Only California has more people on death row longer than Florida. A Florida death row inmate is statistically more likely to die of natural causes than be executed. The average stay on death row is nearly 14 years and on the rise . . .Every death penalty defendant deserves a fair trial. In Florida, they even get a mandatory appeal to the Supreme Court. But after the Supreme Court has spoken all subsequent appeals should be limited.

Timely justice will also make us safer. The death penalty cannot possibly deter violence if executions only happen after memories of the crimes and victims have faded decades ago.

Rep. Gaetz’s views on the death penalty carry extra weight, given that he chairs the Criminal Justice Subcommittee in the Florida House of Representatives. You’d think, then, that he’d be more concerned about this:

With this decision, Penalver becomes Florida’s 24th exonerated Death Row prisoner. Florida has exonerated far more Death Row inmates than any other state.Since Florida resumed executions in the 1970’s, 24 wrong-fully convicted Death Row prisoners have been exonerated while 74 prisoners have been executed. “That’s one exoneration for every three executions,” said Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), “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?”

By my count, at least six of Florida’s death row exonorees spent more than 10 years in prison. That means at least six (and probably more) were likely saved by those lengthy appeals that Gaetz wants to eliminate. Just last month, a jury acquitted Seth Penalver of a 1994 triple murder for which he had at one point had been sentenced to death. He spent seven years on death row.

It seems like Gaetz should first devote his attention to fixing the problems in the state’s criminal justice system that have caused so many wrongful capital convictions before he starts looking for ways to execute people more swiftly. (He might start by looking at all the junk science that the state’s judges have been allowing into criminal trials.)

But it isn’t just Gaetz. Most of the rest of the state’s legislators, prosecutors and public officials seem just as determined.

This year, Florida has 21 new death sentences out of 78 nationally—that’s more than one quarter (26.9 percent) of all new death sentences in the U.S. One small corner of our state, the Jacksonville area, handed down one quarter of all new Florida death sentences. “The state picks up the tab, so areas like Duval County burden all Floridians with their extreme use of numerous, big-ticket death penalty prosecutions,” said Elliott.While death sentences have dropped dramatically in other states, Florida is expanding use of the death penalty. “It is both tragic and ironic that the state that has sent the highest number of wrongfully convicted people to Death Row is now condemning the most people to death,” said Elliott.

Never mind all the caution lights on your dashboard, Florida. Just close your eyes and step on the gas.


Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Florida Legislator Tries Again to End State’s Death Penalty

From The Florida Current:

An attorney-law professor who opposes capital punishment for pragmatic fiscal reasons, as well as legal and moral grounds,  reintroduced her bill Friday to abolish the death penalty in Florida.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said she’s not just making a symbolic gesture.

“The more people we can get educated about the death penalty, I think they will realize that opposition is mostly political posturing, rather than good policy,” she told The Florida Current. “I actually believe we can show people that it’s not a good way to spend public money.”

Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Community College law instructor starting her third legislative term, introduces the bill every year without so much as a committee hearing. Just how tough a tactical battle she’s facing was illustrated in 2011, she said, when she offered her bill on the House floor as an amendment to another criminal-justice proposal.

House rules forbid floor amendments that are the substance of other bills not passed by committees, and Rehwinkel Vasilinda said she intended to talk about capital punishment and then withdraw her amendment. But the GOP House leadership decided to let it go to a floor vote and her amendment was crushed.

“I thought that was a great starting point,” she said cheerfully.

For the past two years, Florida led the nation in new death sentences imposed—22 last year—while five states have repealed their death penalties in the past five years. Rehwinkel Vasilinda said she has had very favorable reaction from her constituents and other residents across  the state during past legislative sessions, and that those who strongly support the death penalty have been “civil” in discussing it with her.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda said that besides moral objections to killing and the years of costly court appeals each death sentence entails, capital punishment is not a deterrent. She cited the murders at Sandy Hook, Conn., and the ambush a few days  later at Webster, N.Y., where a gunman set fires and shot four fire fighters—killing two—before killing himself last month.

“The death penalty was not any kind of deterrent to either Sandy Hook or the Webster massacres,” she said. “I believe we could use our money better to put more law enforcement officers on the ground.”

She cited a 2000 newspaper report estimating the state spent $51 million a year enforcing the death penalty. She said the state could train and equip 450 police officers for that much money, as well as upgrading crime laboratory facilities.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said removing possibility of execution would mean criminals already under life sentences “would have nothing to lose” if they kill again.

“I’d like to hear what the Department of Corrections and law enforcement officers think of this,” said Baxley. “It would pretty much be a license to kill inmates and correctional officers, for a man who’s already locked up for life—what more could they do to him.”

Still, Baxley said he welcomed the discussion.

“I’ve always said the best way for a legislator to start a discussion is to file a bill,” he said.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard said Florida has 402 men and five women under death sentences.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda said the intention of her bill (HB 4005) is to substitute life sentences without parole for the death penalty. The state already has that penalty when a jury spares a killer lethal injection in a first-degree murder case.

“Even if some Floridians and legislative colleagues believe that justice is vengeance, and vengeance is the proper role of government, we simply do not have the resources to afford that ‘luxury,’ ” she said. “We must be about the business of effective, smart crime fighting, preventing horrendous tragedies like that of Sandy Hook and Webster, not political posturing or simple vengeance.”


Related Reading:

Jan. 4, 2013 press release “Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda Files Death Penalty Repealer Bill”

From My Interview With Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda

Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Latest From Florida’s Death Row

Bodies of ‘In Cold Blood’ Killers Exhumed in Effort to Solve 1959 Florida Slayings: Kansas officials have exhumed the bodies of two men executed for the 1959 slayings of a Kansas family made infamous in Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel, “In Cold Blood.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation said the bodies of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were exhumed today at the Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing at the request of Florida officials.

The Sarasota County, Fla., sheriff’s office asked for the exhumation to collect DNA that could help solve the 1959 murders of Cliff and Christine Walker and their two children in Osprey, Fla.

Editorial: Florida Needs to Debate the Death Penalty:  Rhonda Swan, an editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post, writes “not only does Florida lead the nation with 21 individuals sentenced to death this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, it’s also No. 1 for the number of death row inmates exonerated.” Swan calls for the state’s death penalty to be halted, saying “Florida can lead the way in another direction.” And on a similar note…

Editorial: Florida’s Death Penalty Needs Fresh Look: The Tampa Bay Times editorial board calls for closer scrutiny of the state’s death penalty system, writing “Florida is long overdue for a comprehensive look at its death penalty system — an endeavor that any branch of government could launch. It is time to better understand why the state imposes the penalty disproportionately and ends up exonerating so many. Basic justice demands it.”

New Florida Capital Case:  The man accused of killing a firefighter’s wife could be put to death if convicted. State prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Lance Kirkpatrick. He is suspected in the murder of Kim Dorsey. Investigators believe he killed her in the Southside home where he also served as a handyman.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,