Thursday, June 28, 2007

Attorneys seek evidence in death-row inamte’s appeal

Staff Writer

PUNTA GORDA -- It comes as no surprise to death row inmate Daniel Conahan's attorneys that media reports of the recent discovery of eight skeletons in a wooded area of Fort Myers have included speculation on whether Conahan could be responsible for their deaths.

But William Hennis, director of the Capital Collateral Office, which is representing Conahan in an appeal, also pointed out that if any of the Fort Myers skeletons are identified as people killed after Conahan was jailed in 1996, that would cast doubt on the state's entire case.

That's because the case against Conahan was based on circumstantial evidence linking a series of unsolved homicides and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement profile which suggested the suspect was likely a “sexual sadist.”

Both the evidence and the profile amounted to “junk science,” said Hennis today, in comments following a hearing at the Charlotte County Justice Center.

“Our claim is that Conahan was convicted in part on junk science and no DNA evidence tying him to the crime,” Hennis said.

The collateral office provides attorneys for indigent defendants who have been sentenced to death.

Conahan, 53, received that sentence in 1999 for the April 1996 murder of Richard Montgomery, a 21-year-old Charlotte Harbor-area transient.

Montgomery's body was one of five found in wooded areas of Port Charlotte and North Port between 1994 and 1996. An FDLE profiler had concluded the crimes were “behaviorally linked” because of the way they were found.

Most of them were nude, had been tied to trees, were strangled and had their genitals removed, according to affidavits in court records.

Today’s hearing was one in a series held to allow Circuit Judge Donald Pellecchia to track the progress of the State Attorney's Office and the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office in complying with the defense attorneys' requests for evidence and records in Conahan's appeal.

Conahan already has lost a direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. But he still has other appeals pending, Hennis said. State appellate courts could resolve those appeals by next year, but the case is then likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

The evidence requested by the defense includes an undercover detective's audiotape, videotapes of witness statements, and fiber and paint chip evidence, according to court records.

The fiber and paint chip evidence will be reviewed by defense experts.

Conahan was first arrested on July 3, 1996, on charges of kidnapping, sexual battery and attempted murder in a 1994 Fort Myers case.

The victim in that case, Stanley Burden, who is now serving a 25-year prison term in Ohio for sexual battery on a child, had reported to Fort Myers Police in August 1994 that Conahan had lured him into a wooded area. Conahan then tied him to a tree and tried to strangle him, Burden said.

The wooded area where Burden was taken is within a mile of where the eight skeletons were found in March.

Conahan's attorneys have listed 10 cases in which unidentified bodies were found in Charlotte County or North Port.

Those victims include “John Doe No. 7,” whose body was found in October 2000 in an area west of Toledo Blade Boulevard -- within sight of where another body, “John Doe No. 6,” had been found in May 1996.

What's intriguing is that “John Doe No. 7” had been dead for less than two years. Conahan would have been in jail at the time of his death, Hennis pointed out.

Conahan's attorneys have requested the Sheriff's Office release its records of investigations into the “John Doe” cases linked by the FDLE to Conahan's case.

But the State Attorney's Office has declared the unsolved cases exempt from public records because they represent “active investigations.”

However, both the State Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Office have been cooperating fully with the defense's other requests, said Christina Spudea, an attorney from Capital Collateral Office who is co-counsel on Conahan's case.

Today, Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee told the defense attorneys he would contact former investigator Ronnie Lee, who is now Hendry County sheriff, to try to locate a missing audiotape. The tape, recorded by Ronnie Lee, is of Charlotte County Sheriff's Detective Ray Weir talking to Conahan during several “street conversations,” Bob Lee said.

No comments: