Friday, July 13, 2007

High court orders new trial for accused police officer killer


The state Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial for a man sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a Miami Springs police officer.

The court said Merrit A. Sims' lawyers did not do enough to counter the state's argument that he killed to avoid drugs being detected in his car, which would have sent him back to prison, and was what the state gave as his motive for the crime.

The Supreme Court said the evidence supported Sims' conviction for the murder of Charles Stafford - Sims confessed to the killing, although he argued it was in self-defense.

But the court, in an unsigned unanimous opinion, said Sims' attorneys at his trial did not do enough to counter the prosecution's claims about his motive, namely that a police dog detected that the car in which Sims had been stopped had drugs in it. No drugs were ever found.

But the testimony about the police dog picking up the scent of drugs laid the foundation for Sims' parole officer to testify that if Sims was found in possession of drugs, he would be in violation of his probation, and could be sent back to prison. During closing arguments, prosecutors suggested that Sims killed Stafford because he had drugs in the car and did not want to go back to prison.

The court said it found Sims' attorneys did not sufficiently challenge the evidence.

"The state's case was based upon this motive theory," the court said. "Given the facts of this case, our confidence in the outcome is undermined. Sims has established that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."

Sims' initial attorneys didn't immediately return a call for comment.

The court ordered his convictions vacated and ordered a new trial.

An attorney currently representing Sims also did not return a call for comment.

Justices also vacated the death sentence of Christopher Jones Jr. in the 2001 Okeechobee County robbery and ensuing murder of Hilario Dominguez. Jones will instead serve a life sentence without any opportunity for parole.

When Jones received the death penalty, one of the reasons cited for the sentence was the assertion that he killed Dominguez to eliminate him as a witness in order not to get caught. Under court precedent, killing a witness to avoid being prosecuted can bring a harsher penalty than killing for some other reasons. But, the Supreme Court said there was no evidence that was Jones' motive.

The court also agreed with Jones' lawyers that when all the circumstances of the murder were taken into account, it did not fit in with the circumstances of most cases in which the death penalty is applied.

The court also upheld the death sentence for William Melvin White, who has been on death row since 1978 and whose first death warrant was signed more than 20 years ago by former Gov. Bob Martinez.

White, now 62, was a member of a Kentucky chapter of the Outlaws motorcycle gang, when he was convicted of the January 1978 beating and stabbing death of 28-year-old Gracie May Crawford at the gang's Orlando clubhouse.

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