Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jurors view interrogation of killer now fighting death sentence

Rusty, son of murder victims Glyn and Vivian Fowler, leans forward to listen as the guilty verdict is read for David Snelgrove. His sister, Pam, fights back tears while family friend Michael comforts her in the Flagler County courtroom. (Photo: News-Journal/David Tucker)

Staff Writer

BUNNELL -- An edited video shows investigators questioning David Snelgrove two days after he stabbed and beat to death an elderly Palm Coast couple during a burglary in 2000.

Circuit Judge Kim Hammond ruled Wednesday that jurors could see the video, saying it showed Snelgrove's demeanor and ability to communicate.

"I don't think one can conclude that it's an absolute test of competence," Hammond said.

Jurors must decide whether to recommend if Snelgrove, 35, should spend the rest of his life in prison or return to death row.

A cocaine user, Snelgrove broke into his neighbors' house on June 23, 2000, looking for money to support his habit. He stabbed and beat to death Glyn Fowler, 84, and his wife, Vivian, 79, in their bedroom.

In the video, Snelgrove denies killing the couple after an investigator repeatedly asks him the same questions. He says he loves to play pinochle because it makes him think. He points to cuts on his body, saying they were caused by gas-powered sheers he used to trim hedges during his job as a groundskeeper.

"I did cut my hand at work," Snelgrove said after an investigator told him his boss denied it.

Snelgrove's defense attorneys had argued Wednesday the tape was irrelevant and jurors could not determine if Snelgrove had a mental illness merely by looking at the tape. The defense has argued Snelgrove might be mentally retarded, has brain damage, and cocaine impaired his judgment.

But prosecutors said the tape would give jurors an idea of a day in the life of Snelgrove when he wasn't high on cocaine, when he spoke clearly and could process information. An expert witness for the state said he did not see a brain abnormality on an imaging scan, contradicting a defense expert's testimony from the day before.

A jury convicted Snelgrove of the murders in 2002, voting 7-5 to recommend the death penalty. Because jurors had one sentencing recommendation for two murders, and because the vote was split, the Florida Supreme Court reversed Snelgrove's death sentence in 2005. His conviction stuck.

The jury might begin deliberations today.

Murderer's parole bid gets turned down again

Henry Thomas Ashley, 64, is not likely to live to see his parole date in April of 2067.

The relatives of one of his victims from the '70s want to make sure if he leaves prison, it's "in a pine box."

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Senior Correspondent
Published January 31, 2008


TALLAHASSEE - Every five years, Robert LaPlante and his daughter, Simone King, make the long trip from New Port Richey to Tallahassee to appear before the Florida Parole Commission.

They want to make sure Henry Thomas Ashley dies behind bars. In New Port Richey, almost 38 years ago, Ashley killed LaPlante's 19-year old son Richard and four other people.

A judge sentenced Ashley, now 64, to die in the electric chair. But that sentence was reduced to life in prison in 1972 after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the death penalty.

"They told me if I could come to every hearing, he would leave prison in a pine box," King said as she and her father left the hearing room Wednesday.

LaPlante, former manager of Beall's Department Store at Southgate Shopping Center, said his wife never got over the news of their son's death and died shortly thereafter. He urged the commission to reject parole for Ashley.

Ashley was not present for the hearing. He is currently at Polk Correctional Institution in Polk City. He asked for parole so he could move to Virginia and live with his fiancee. He recently got his high school diploma and says he is sorry for the murders. He told parole officials he does not want to die in prison. Parole officials say Ashley told them he should have stayed home with his sister in St. Petersburg the night of the murders.

"After (all these) years he's sorry for what he did." Ms. King said. "He ruined so many lives, I don't believe he should get any reduction in his sentence."

Parole commissioners agreed and turned down a recommendation from Parole Examiner Lori A. Pille that would have chopped 12 months off of Ashley's expected parole date. He is now scheduled to be paroled in April 2067, a date he is unlikely to live to see. By law, his case will be reviewed again in five years.

Ashley murdered four of his victims at Dorn's Hideaway, a bar and restaurant near New Port Richey that closed after the shootings. LaPlante was robbed and killed on Green Key Road after Ashley and his companion, Lawrence Osteen, picked him up hitchhiking on U.S. 19. Ashley's family said he had about $20 when he left home to visit a friend. Police said the motive for all five murders was robbery.

Osteen was the state's key witness against Ashley. He is currently serving a life sentence for a murder in an unrelated case that occurred several years after the New Port Richey murders. He was not prosecuted in the Ashley case.

Those who died at Dorn's included Andrew and Mildred Dorn, owners of the bar and restaurant and Phillip and Ethel Vaiana. The two couples were alone in the bar at closing time in the early morning hours of October 4, 1970. Mrs. Vaiana was a waitress at the restaurant.

Ashley later told a St Petersburg Times reporter he killed the two couples at Dorn's because one of the men laughed at him. Ashley and Osteen had been drinking and driving around the New Port Richey area on the night of the murders.

UM researchers say lethal injection could violate Eighth Amendment

INSTRUMENTS OF DEATH: UM researchers say execution by lethal injection could violate the Eighth Amendment.


Study suggests lethal injection causes unnecessary pain
By: Lilliam Albizu-Campos // Staff News Writer

Posted: 1/31/08

A death row inmate is given a fatal dose of chemicals, but the excruciating pain, suffocation and burning sensation associated with the toxins will be masked by an anesthetic.

Or, maybe it won't. A study published in May 2007 by Teresa Zimmers and Leonidas Koniaris, two researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, suggests the use of lethal injection to execute death row prisoners may be violating the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel an unusual punishment.

"[Before conducting the study] my colleagues and I, like most Americans, thought the lethal injection was like a medical procedure and therefore painless," Zimmers said. "We were very surprised to discover that there is substantial proof of pain."

Lethal injection, the most common form of execution in the United States, is currently considered to be the most humane form of capital punishment.

Zimmers and Leonidas' research shows that in 43 out of 49 lethal injection executions, not enough painkiller was administered, and inmates were fully aware of their suffering.

The researchers also discuss multiple problems with the lethal injection procedure, including a lack of training for the people who administer the serum and poor regulation of the process.

"There is a fairly entrenched opinion among prison officials that the current protocol is fail-safe, and if administered correctly, will result in a painless death," Zimmers said.

The use of lethal injection is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court. The review began on Jan. 7, four years after two death row inmates from Kentucky sued the state claiming that death by lethal injection violates the Constitution.

Though the court is focusing on defining the acceptable amount of pain allowed under the Eighth Amendment, some Supreme Court justices are not too worried about inmate suffering.

"This is an execution, not a surgery," said Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, refuting arguments that lethal injection causes "an unnecessary risk of pain."

The two inmates are asking to be euthanized, which is the same procedure used to put down pets. This method would render the inmate unconscious and induce death within a few minutes.

Many states are refusing to change their protocol, including California, Florida and Texas.

"If you change, you are admitting that there was something wrong with the prior method," said Professor Deborah Denno, an authority on methods of execution as Fordham University to the New York Times. "All those people you were executing, you could have been doing it in a better, more humane way."

Nevertheless, 14 states plus the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty.

Out of the remaining 37 states that allow the death penalty, including Florida, only Nevada demands that inmates be executed by electrocution.

The Supreme Court's ruling on lethal injection is not expected until June 2008.

"Lethal injection as a form of execution is flawed and cannot be fixed," Zimmers said. "There are so many flaws at so many levels. It would be better if it was discontinued."

Lilliam Albizu-Campos can be contacted at

-Approximately 3,350 people are on death row in the U.S. Of these, two inmates have received the death penalty for a non-homicide crimes, although no one in the U.S. has been executed for a crime other than murder since 1964.

-The last time the Supreme Court considered the humanity of the death penalty was in the case of Willie Francis, a Louisiana inmate sentenced to death in 1945. He was strapped into the electric chair and shocked, but somehow survived. He pleaded for his sentence to be commuted in the Francis v. Resweber case, but the court ruled that it was a technical malfunction and the state could attempt again. Francis was successfully executed in 1947 at the age of 17.

Daughter of slain woman testifies

Sheila Miller says men shot mother, kidnapped her Defense says Miller didn't try to escape


OCALA - The daughter of a murdered Villages retiree testified Wednesday that one of three men who came to her parents' home used to be her drug dealer and came to the home to bring her a gift.

Sheila Miller, 40, testified that on July 21, 2006, the men tied her up and demanded money and later killed her mother, wounded her father and kidnapped her for access to bank card passcodes.

"She turned around, grabbed her chest, looked down and moved her hands and there was a perfect bullet hole," Miller said as she looked at the 12-person jury Wednesday and testified about the day her mother, Diana Miller, 63, was killed.

Miller's testimony came during the first-degree murder trial of Jarrord Marqui Roberts, 20, and Renaldo Devon McGirth, 19, who were both charged with kidnapping, attempted murder and armed robbery in connection with the case.

If convicted, they could face the death penalty.

Miller said she was taken away from the home before her mother was fatally shot in the head and before her father was wounded with a shot to his head. Though James Miller was left for dead, he survived. He testified Tuesday.

State Attorney Brad King and Assistant State Attorney Anthony Tatti are prosecuting the case against McGirth and Roberts.

Prosecutors reached a plea agreement with a third defendant, Theodore Houston, 18, who agreed to testify against the other two in exchange for a sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison.

Miller admitted that she once had an alcohol and drug abuse problem, including a 1989 arrest for drug possession. She said her mother always paid her bills and made sure that she was comfortable during her drug addiction. She said she has not taken hard drugs since before her mother was killed.

She remembered vividly the day Roberts, McGirth and Houston entered her parents' home in The Villages of Springdale retirement community.

Miller had been in a car crash and injured her knee, pelvis and toe and that's why she moved in with her parents, who had rented beds, wheelchairs and other equipment for her.

On the day of the home invasion robbery, Miller said, she received a phone call from a man she knew only as "Pooney," whom she later identified as McGirth. He said he had a gift for her.

After giving McGirth directions, he and two others arrived at the house to pay a visit. One of the men she knew only by the name of "Bro," whom she later identified as Houston.

Just a few minutes after the men arrived, Miller wheeled herself into her room to smoke a cigarette. McGirth and Houston followed and tied her hands, head and mouth with duct tape. She then watched McGirth shoot her mother.

"She fell on the bed and began coughing up blood," Miller said. Her mother kept saying she was fine and everything would be OK.

Miller said she was taken to the van, apparently before her parents were shot one last time, and taken to automatic teller machines between The Villages and Gainesville.

She testified that she was taken in order to provide credit card and bank card passcodes and was told that if she did not do what they said, or if she called 911, they would kill her.

The Marion County Sheriff's Office found them at a store north of Ocala on U.S. 441. A chase soon ensued, leading to the arrest of all three men.

"We were going head-on with cars," she said, adding that the chase ended when deputies used Stop Sticks, which blew out the tires and eventually caused the van they were in to flip several times.

During cross-examination, McGirth's attorney, Candace Hawthorne, asked Miller about the fact that she was pushed by one of the unarmed men through Kmart in Belleview for about six minutes. The other two men, as well as the gun, stayed in the van.

Hawthorne pointed out that Miller did not scream, yell or do anything else to attract attention while inside the store, knowing the man pushing her through the store did not have a gun.

"You didn't steal anything in hopes to set off an alarm?" she asked. Miller said "no."

Hawthorne also asked Miller if she had stolen her mother's identity for the purpose of obtaining credit cards. Miller said she had.

Roberts' attorney, Henry Ferro, also cross-examined the daughter, asking how she knew McGirth.

Ferro spent about 45 minutes going through every part of Miller's testimony and pointing out inconsistencies. Ferro hinted that she had called McGirth to bring her drugs.

Hawthorne objected to Ferro's questioning, stating it would be prejudicial to her client. The objection was overruled by Circuit Judge Brian Lambert.

Miller said she hadn't seen two of the three men in the two years prior to July 2006 after their relationship became strained. Ferro asked Miller whether she thought the "gift" they were bringing her was, in fact, drugs - specifically marijuana.

"No!" she said, adding she was clean.

Joe Callahan may be reached at or at 867-4113.

Marion County Jail inmate dies after fall from bunk


OCALA - The Marion County Sheriff's Office Friday night reported the death of a prisoner at the Marion County Jail.

"This evening, just before head count, inmate William Edward Koch, 54, suddenly rolled off the top bunk and fell to the floor where he passed away," according to a press release.

Koch, whose address is the 16000 block of Southeast 102nd Court Road in Summerfield, was arrested Thursday night on a domestic simple battery charge, the release stated.

He was being housed in the open population where other inmates witnessed him fall to the floor and the medical personnel responded to the emergency, the department said.

The incident happened around 7 p.m. after dinner, said sheriff's spokesman Capt. Jimmy Pogue. Koch was on some form of medication, but Pogue did not know what kind.

Sheriff Dean has requested that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conduct an investigation.

The exact cause of death will be determined after an autopsy.

The preliminary investigation did not reveal any signs of foul play, the department said.

According to arrest records, Koch's wife, Jacqueline, reported that he grabbed her arm and pushed her during an argument.

When deputies tried to question him about it, he refused to talk about it, told deputies to talk to his wife, and finally said, "Take me to jail." The arresting deputy reported a strong odor of alcohol on his breath.

Inmate found guilty of murdering another convict

David Angier/Florida Freedom Newspapers
Thursday January 31st, 2008

Twelve jurors took 38 minutes to convict Washington Correctional Institution inmate Johnny Reed of first-degree murder for killing another convict in a racially motivated attack.

Reed and the jurors will return to court today for a short penalty phase proceeding that will end with the jury recommending either life in prison or death for Reed.

Reed, 34, accepted the verdict without expression and laughed with his attorneys after the jury had been excused for the day.

Jurors convicted him of smothering Donald R. Williams, 46, in November 2006 while the two shared a cell at the Washington County prison.

Reed’s lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Walter Smith, told jurors in his closing that the prison shared some of the blame. He said Reed, a white man, had made no secret of his allegiance to the “Aryan Brotherhood” or his view that prisoners should be segregated by race.

Williams was black.

Smith said the two never should have been put in a cell together.

Reed did not deny killing Williams. He gave investigators a detailed confession and participated in a videotaped re-enactment of the murder.

Smith simply asked jurors to convict Reed of something other than first-degree murder so they would not have to return to court for the penalty phase.

Prosecutor Larry Basford indicated he would be seeking the death penalty on at least four legal aggravators: the murder was heinous, atrocious or cruel; it was cold, calculated and premeditated; the defendant has a prior violent felony conviction; and he was in custody at the time of the crime.

Legal aggravators have to be proven to jurors, but they assign the weight each aggravator carries in determining a recommendation. It would be almost unheard of for Circuit Judge Allen Register to sentence Reed to anything other than what the jury recommends.

Basford said he will call one witness today in the penalty phase. Smith said he had two witnesses and said the hearing might be concluded by 10:30 a.m.

Register, who has worked in Washington County for 25 years as a prosecutor and judge, said there have been several local first-degree murder cases that have gone to a penalty phase hearing in that time, but no one had been sentenced to death.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do right by those Florida wronged

A Times Editorial
Published January 29, 2008


The Legislature has a responsibility to address an issue it has kicked down the road for years: compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Lawmakers need to put aside their differences and bring Florida into the ranks of those states that have an automatic system for providing recompense to people wrongly incarcerated - sometimes for decades. It is not just a duty but a moral imperative.

Alan Crotzer is the prime example of why the current ad hoc system is not workable. Crotzer spent 24 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. Despite witnesses who said he was not near the scene of the crime, Crotzer was convicted of robbing a family and kidnapping and raping a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl. Another man convicted in the robbery later disclosed to police that they had gotten the wrong man. A DNA test also pointed away from Crotzer.

Crotzer was released from prison in early 2006. But so far, attempts to pass a bill to compensate him have failed. Last year, a claims bill that would have given Crotzer $1.25-million passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Here is a man who went to prison as a young man and left the state corrections system middle-aged. He missed the years when people normally get an education and put themselves on a career path. The state owes him a chance to have a decent life, and the payment must be substantial enough to begin to redress the wrong.

Crotzer's supporters are committed to getting his claims bill passed this year, but it makes much more sense to adopt a system of guaranteed payment for anyone similarly harmed.

A bill (SB 756) sponsored by state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, would be the right step. It provides exonerated inmates $100,000 for every year of wrongful incarceration. The bill makes it clear that only those who were completely innocent of the offense and didn't aid others in its commission would qualify, and no one formerly designated a violent career criminal would qualify. The bill would also offer the wrongfully incarcerated free college tuition.

In the past, lawmakers have considered legislation that would have prevented those with a prior felony conviction from receiving automatic compensation. But that approach would exclude highly deserving people such as Crotzer, who had a previous robbery conviction when he was 17 years old. Moreover, people with mug shots in the system and a criminal record are simply more likely to be wrongly identified in a rush to judgment.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, says creating some kind of guaranteed compensation system for the exonerated is at the top of his list this year. We also now have a governor who has a strong moral compass on these kinds of issues.

With key state leaders on board, Florida may soon be among those compassionate states that do the right thing toward people it has wronged. Getting this done should be a top priority in Tallahassee.

At the heart of the debate over how much to spend on the legal defense of alleged killers, lies a paradox, says Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker. When the evidence is incontrovertible and the crime heinous, the cost of defending the alleged culprit is usually higher.

For example:

When it is fairly obvious the defendant committed a capital crime, the defense team is required to search for any mitigating factor that might convince a jury that the defendant's life be spared, which essentially means spending money on experts such as forensic psychiatrists.

A 2003 Supreme Court decision extended the search for mitigating factors to a defendant's early life, making it more or less mandatory for defense teams to compile expensive mini-biographies of clients.
It isn't clear how to keep such costs down:

Some states cap the legal fees that can be spent on death-penalty cases; Florida sets its cap at $15,000 and South Carolina and Oklahoma at $25,000.
But spending on experts, which isn't subject to those limits, often push the total cost in those states to six figures.

The costs can be enough to derail a trial entirely, as is the case with the Georgia trial of Brian Nichols who, in 2005, shot a judge and a court reporter in a courtroom while making an escape; he then killed two more people, stealing cars and taking a hostage.

More than two years later, the cost of paying for experts has played a large role in exhausting the funds of the Georgia agency charged with covering the defense of death-penalty defendants.

It has already paid $1.2 million so far in legal fees and expert bills.
With Nichols's legal team refusing to go on without further payment, jury selection hasn't even been completed.

Source: Robin Moroney, "The High Price of Defending Killers," Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2008, and Jeffrey Toobin, "Death In Georgia: The high price of trying to save an infamous killer's life," New Yorker, February 4, 2008.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Florida Man Sentenced for Conspiracy to Produce Child Pornography

Leonard Addison Parks Jr., 24, of Indiantown, Fla., was sentenced today in the Southern District of Florida to serve 90 months in prison for his involvement in child pornography in which video clips of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct were produced, Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher of the Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta for the Southern District of Florida announced today.

Parks, who cooperated with the government, and two other Indiantown, Fla. men -- Randy Charles Harris, 37, and Salvador Pascual Aguirre, 23, -- were previously charged in a superseding indictment arising out of their respective criminal involvement in the case. Parks and Harris were charged with conspiring to produce the illegal video clips between January 2005 and June 2007. Aguirre was charged with receiving or attempting to receive child pornography from Harris during that same time period. Parks, who cooperated with investigators, pleaded guilty on Oct. 30, 2007, to one count of conspiracy to use a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct.

Harris and Aguirre were both sentenced to prison earlier this month for their involvement in the case. Harris received a 30-year sentence after he pleaded guilty on Oct. 15, 2007, to one count of using a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct, and one count of conspiracy to use a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct. Aguirre, who cooperated with investigators, received a three-year sentence after he pleaded guilty on Oct. 30, 2007, to one count of attempted receipt of child pornography.

The cases were prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Corey Steinberg of the Southern District of Florida and Trial Attorney Elizabeth M. Yusi of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section of the Department's Criminal Division. The cases were investigated by the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Martin County Sheriff's Office.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

Why crime matters again

Grants yield high return for investment

Special to the Star-Banner

The problem is all over the evening news and the statistics are troubling.

Since 2005, the murder rate in Orlando is up 77 percent. From 2005 to 2006, robberies by juveniles in Marion County jumped 390 percent.

I've spent the past several months meeting with local sheriffs and chiefs of police, as well as judges, prosecutors and federal agents. I've ridden along in the middle of the night with cops patrolling our most dangerous neighborhoods. And I've gone into the field with our U.S. Marshals as they've tracked down the worst of the worst fugitives.

Crime is primarily a local issue and law enforcement in Central Florida is doing a good job with limited resources. But there is a federal role to help our police chiefs and sheriffs fight crime with a balanced approach that emphasizes both enforcement and prevention.

First, we need more cops on the street and specialized federal teams in targeted areas of Central Florida.

The COPS program started in 1994 and is responsible for putting 120,000 cops on the street nationwide, including 774 cops in my district, 234 of which have been hired since I first took office.

The program is simple. Once a local law enforcement agency is approved for a COPS grant, the federal government picks up the tab for new police officers or sheriff's deputies for three years. The local agency is then required to cover the full cost for at least one year.

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft correctly described the COPS program as a "miraculous sort of success." A nonpartisan Government Accountability Office study concluded that the decline in the number of violent crimes from 1994 to 2000 was associated with increases in the number of cops on the street funded by the COPS program.

I've been the lead Republican in Congress championing the COPS program, and the COPS bill that the U.S. House passed last year 381-34 would add 50,000 new police officers nationwide, including 325 in my district. The U.S. Senate is expected to act on COPS legislation soon.

Second, we need to fix our juvenile justice system in Florida, a system which is completely broken.

The number one complaint I hear from police officers, sheriff's deputies and prosecutors is the same kids keep getting arrested 15 or 20 times.

Just last week I hosted a live telephone town hall meeting from Washington, D.C., and called 40,000 families in Lake and Marion counties. One of the listeners told me the same juveniles - kids she knew and could identify - keep breaking into her property, but law enforcement has been unable to stop them.

A big part of the problem, according to what Central Florida Juvenile Court Judge Tony Johnson told me, is Department of Juvenile Justice commitment managers keep making recommendations of probation for violent juveniles and our judges are usually reversed by the Fifth District Court of Appeals if they deviate from the recommendations.

I've been working with leaders who recognize the problem, like Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum and state Sen. Carey Baker, whose district includes part of Marion County, on steps that can be made to take juvenile sentencing decisions out of the hands of caseworkers and put those decisions into the hands of judges.

Third, since 80 percent of Florida prison inmates are high school dropouts, we need to give kids positive role models and after-school activities.

We need to give our young people hope through education and job opportunities.

For example, one way we help kids from low- and moderate-income families go to college is through Pell Grants, money that never needs to be paid back but yields an amazing return. By investing $13 billion dollars in Pell Grants it helps yield up to $85 billion in additional tax revenue since the average college graduate earns 75 percent more than the average high school graduate.

I'm chairman of the Congressional Pell Grant Caucus and firmly believe keeping at-risk kids in school and ultimately helping them get into college is one of the best crime prevention ideas around.

Finally, we need to keep working together to solve our violent crime problem.

I made securing $282,000 for the advanced fingerprint technology requested by the Marion County Sheriff's Office one of my top priorities. We were successful and saw that initiative funded in the recent year-end spending bill that just passed Congress last month.

Don't take my word for it, just tune in tonight. A few minutes spent watching the evening news tells you it's time to once again make fighting crime everyone's priority.

U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, represents the 8th Congressional District.

Fair compensation

Don't make the innocent beg for justice

Alan Crotzer deserved better treatment from Florida's criminal court system. He spent 24 years in prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit. And when DNA evidence finally freed him, he deserved better than the treatment he got from the state. He had no job skills, no way to support himself, little help with readjusting to a life outside of a concrete cage.

Crotzer deserves better treatment from the Florida Legislature. In the spring session, he'll appear in committee rooms to tell his story and ask for compensation. The state has already taken away a significant chunk of his life -- when he was sentenced, Crotzer had every reason to think he would die behind bars. The state took his chance to watch his daughter grow up. The state took his chance to say goodbye to his mother.

The state shouldn't take his dignity as well. Nor should it deprive other men and women who may be exonerated.

Money can't make up the horror an innocent person feels after walking into prison for the first time, or repair the gaps in an unjustly interrupted life -- but it can provide the means to build a new life with what's left. It's tough to train a former inmate to sleep through the night or to stop looking over his shoulder, but the state can -- and should -- give exonerated people access to counseling programs designed to ease their transition back into society.

Years in prison can have a marked impact on a person's physical health -- the state should help with health care. For many innocent prisoners, the world has changed dramatically since they were last free -- the state should provide assistance with simple tasks like opening a bank account or driving a car.

For the third year running, lawmakers have a bill before them that would provide just compensation and aid for people freed from prison after proving their innocence. The proposal is relatively modest: $100,000 for every year spent wrongly incarcerated, plus tuition at a state university or college. Lawmakers should add provisions for health care and transition services -- as many states have done -- and then approve the legislation, making it easier for people who are exonerated to start the process of getting their lives on track. Twenty-three states already have similar laws.

In previous years, this legislation has run aground on petty issues. Some lawmakers insisted that people who are exonerated after pleading guilty or no-contest shouldn't be eligible for compensation -- but innocent is innocent, and many people plead guilty to offenses they didn't commit in exchange for more lenient sentences. Other legislators quibbled about the amount: Last year, the bill proposed $50,000 a year for compensation. Either sum would be fairer than the current system, which requires each exoneree to go begging to the Legislature.

Gov. Charlie Crist and Senate President Ken Pruitt have said they support justice for Crotzer, and for those who will follow him. Other leaders should follow suit. It's shameful that lawmakers have taken this long to act, and they should wait no longer.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Inmate ruled incompetent for appeal

January 26, 2008


John Huggins, a death-row inmate who killed an Orlando woman in 1997, remains incompetent to proceed with his legal appeal.

The challenge Friday for Orange-Osceola Chief Circuit Court Judge Belvin Perry was what to do with him.

Having Department of Children and Families doctors treat Huggins at Union Correctional Institution won't work. A DCF team was supposed to treat him last year but said he was faking a psychotic disorder and found him competent. But three doctors appointed by the court reported he is still incompetent and needs medication.

Perry sided with them and ordered Department of Corrections to treat him. The medical team must consult with the three court-appointed doctors and the DCF counselors. The team also must submit its treatment plan with all the lawyers involved and the court.

Huggins was convicted of strangling Carla Larson, 30, on June 10, 1997, after she left her job at a construction site at the Coronado Springs Resort and Convention Center. Her body was found partially buried in dirt near Walt Disney World.

Sarah Lundy, Ludmilla Lelis, Denise-Marie Balona, Willoughby Mariano and Kate Santich of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Judge, not jury, to decide case of man accused of hacking wife, son with sword

Franklyn "Frankie" Duzant will face a non-jury trial Feb. 27 a judge ruled today. Duzant's defense said Duzant was insane when he killed his wife and son with a sword in 2006. (JULIE FLETCHER, ORLANDO SENTINEL / January 25, 2008)

January 26, 2008


A judge, not a jury, will decide the fate of Franklyn "Frankie" Duzant, the disabled Army veteran who is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the hacking death of his wife and 11-year-old son in June 2006.

Seminole Circuit Court Judge Donna McIntosh announced the Feb. 27 trial date during a brief hearing Friday at the Seminole County courthouse.

Duzant sat quietly in the courtroom with his ankles and wrists shackled.

"Both sides agreed that this was the most efficient and effective way to have some finality to the case without going into a lot of further expense," said Duzant's attorney, Diana Tennis.

On June 16, 2006, neighbors say, they watched in horror as Duzant, 42, followed his son Nico as he ran frantically out of the house to get away from his father, according to police reports. Nico ran across the street toward some neighbors, and when he stumbled, Duzant slashed him to death with a sword, the report said. It was the boy's 11th birthday.

Investigators later found Duzant's wife, Evangeline "Gigi" Duzant, 52, dead inside their home on Queensbridge Drive near Lake Mary. She had been beheaded.

Prosecutors have said they would seek the death penalty.

Four mental health experts -- two for the defense and two for the state -- agreed Duzant was hallucinating and insane when he killed his family.

McIntosh will review the doctors' reports and if she accepts their findings, she could find Duzant not guilty by reason of insanity and send him to a state mental hospital for treatment.

Duzant is being medicated and is now competent to stand trial.

"He's not getting treatment and that's the problem. They medicate him but that's not exactly getting care and treatment," Tennis said.

Sarah Lundy, Ludmilla Lelis, Denise-Marie Balona, Willoughby Mariano and Kate Santich of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Our position: Moving state's juvenile-justice chief couldn't have come at worse time

Walt McNeil, Secretary

January 26, 2008

Juvenile criminals are creating chaos in Florida. They grow in numbers by the day. In Osceola County alone, ju- venile crime has spiked an estimated 50 percent over the past two years. The mix now includes many more girls, who are getting arrested at younger ages; 40 percent of them are committing their first offense before they turn 13.

Walter McNeil was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to fix this mess in January of 2007. A year later he is gone. The timing could not be worse.

Mr. McNeil has stepped away at the governor's request to run the state's adult prison system. Although it's a promotion, that's like a contractor starting a major renovation project and then walking away with a pile of building materials scattered all over the place.

Mr. McNeil was an architect for change for 26 juvenile-detention centers in Florida -- changes that heralded a welcome balance between punishment and rehabilitation. He has strong, proactive ideas to deal with the impact of troubled youths in our communities.

They include allowing first-time offenders the option of avoiding jail through a community-service program, providing more resources for the estimated 20 percent of juveniles who are chronic offenders, and adequately meeting the needs of girls with gender-specific programs such as domestic-violence counseling.

Mr. McNeil's push for reform included appointing a 25-member Blueprint Commission, which expects to release a final report within three weeks.

A huge hole in that plan now exists. One of the 52 recommendations is for the commission to reconvene annually to measure progress.

But how does one measure progress effectively with the point man for change out of the picture -- as well as two key staff members who are also leaving?

The Governor's Office insists the transition will be smooth and that Mr. McNeil's successor will "pick up where he left off." We doubt it.

Mr. McNeil was a good fit. Who knows if his successor will follow his approach, or come in with a batch of other ideas?

Why was Mr. Crist so quick to appoint a new chief to run prisons? Why not a national search?

Mr. Crist should know that getting a handle on the problems with juveniles takes priority over running adult prisons. By the time those prisoners are adults, it's too late. Building a strong juvenile-justice system would ease the burden on adult prisons, and make life safer for everyone in Florida.

Mr. Crist had the vision to see that by hiring Mr. McNeil a year ago. But 12 months of hard work may barely have a ripple effect on the juvenile crisis.

No matter what the Pollyanna spin is, the house remains in shambles.

Alternates still needed for jury in murder trial

Selection slowed by pretrial publicity


OCALA — After four days of questioning, Circuit Judge Brian D. Lambert late Friday afternoon swore in a jury of eight women and four men who will decide the fate of Renaldo Devon McGirth, 19, and Jarrord Marqui Roberts, 21, two Marion County men accused of murder.

But jury selection is not over yet. Questioning will resume Monday in order to seat two alternate jurors.

All of the jurors, except for one young black man, are white; the defendants are black. If found guilty, they face the death penalty.

McGirth and Roberts are accused of the July 2006 murder of Diana Miller and the shooting of her husband, James, after a home robbery in the Villages that ended in a high-speed chase and the release of the couple's kidnapped daughter, Sheila.

If alternates are selected on Monday, opening statements could begin on Tuesday. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Jury selection has been slowed by pretrial publicity as well as the dismissal of Thursday's panel of 22 prospective jurors, after a question directed to one of the panelists by the judge led to the disclosure that McGirth had been involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Because all the panelists heard the question and answer, defense attorneys asked that the entire panel be stricken, and the judge agreed.

On Friday, a number of jurors said they had prior knowledge about the case, and some expressed concern about perhaps having to recommend a death sentence, or having to look at graphic photographs.

Before the jury was sworn, Michael Gourley, one of Roberts' defense attorneys, pointed out that during the entire four days of questioning, there was a total of four black people in the jury pool from which to choose.

"He has used preemptories on three of those African Americans," Gourley said about State Attorney Brad King.

McGirth and Roberts each had 10 pre-emptory strikes and King had 20. The judge gave McGirth an additional pre-emptory and denied any additional strikes to Roberts.

The preemptory strikes allow either the state or the defendants to remove people without cause from the jury pool.

During questioning, one of the black men struck by King had expressed concern about looking at graphic photos. Another was the man who said he knew McGirth from the juvenile justice system.

The other black prospective juror was a woman who said she had concerns about the death penalty. When the process was explained to her, she said she could follow the law, but King asked that she be struck.

When asked what she thought of the jury's composition, Michelle McGirth, mother of the defendant, said she had no comment. Roberts' grandmother also had no comment.

Henry Ferro, Roberts' co-counsel, said the matter of race was placed into the record to preserve it for appellate court consideration.

King stands by his decisions.
"I did what I thought was appropriate to represent the state of Florida and Mr. Miller and I think I fully complied with Florida law," he said. King did not use 11 of the 20 strikes he had.

Assistant State Attorney Anthony Tatti, who is working with King on the case, supported King's decisions.

"We used some strikes for white females and white males," Tatti said. "Color is not an issue as far as I am concerned. The issue is the qualifications of the jury."

Susan Latham Carr may be reached at 352-867-4156 or

Friday, January 25, 2008

Florida federal prison guards charged in contraband, bribery case


OCALA, Fla. -- Eleven people, including nine who worked at Coleman Federal Penitentiary, have been accused of taking bribes to bring contraband into prison and having sex with an inmate, officials said Friday.

Federal prosecutors announced the case that began last year and four workers had their cases unsealed Thursday. All nine prison workers were either fired, suspended or resigned, Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Felicia Ponce said.

Corrections officer Luiz Felix Viera, 41, of Tavares, was accused in an October indictment of smuggling 12 cartons of cigarettes, two packs of cigars and a knife into the prison in exchange for a $3,100 bribe. Defense attorney Ronald E. Fox declined comment.

Kendra Russell, also known as Kendra Drain, 41, of Tavares, a treatment specialist at the prison, was accused in a November indictment of smuggling marijuana into the prison in exchange for $948. She did not have an attorney listed on federal records.

Former corrections officer Calvin Williams was indicted in November on charges that he smuggled cell phones, cigarettes and watches into the prison in exchange for bribes of $5,700.

Former corrections officer William Alan Blanton of Ocala was charged Tuesday with having sex with a female inmate.

Both Williams and Blanton are represented by the federal public defender's office in Ocala, which did not immediately return telephone calls.

All four were released on bond after their initial appearance Thursday.

Another four Coleman employees have pleaded guilty to bribery charges and one has pleaded guilty to providing contraband. The two others charged included an inmate and Williams' girlfriend.

Last modified: January 25. 2008 2:36PM

Change the dinner-table conversation

By Elisa Cramer

Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer

Friday, January 25, 2008

The statistics can be overwhelming. Low graduation rates, high incarceration rates. Low wages, high health-care expenses.

In 2006, more than 50 percent of black males in grades three through five scored below grade level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in math and reading. In middle school, more than 65 percent were below grade level. More than 84''percent of black males in ninth and 10th grades performed below grade level in reading, almost 60''percent in math.

Considering that - and the fact that state data show black youth are more likely to be suspended than whites - it is less surprising that only half of black males in Florida graduate from high school.

"Florida has one of the highest percentages of African-American juveniles over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice system," according to the Blueprint Commission of the Florida Department of Juvenile justice. "Nearly seven of 10 youth in secure confinement are minority juveniles."

Such disparities are apparent in every area the state's Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys considered over the past year: economics, education, foster care, health, crime.

The council was charged by law with proposing "measures to alleviate and correct the underlying causes of the conditions." The result is an 84-page report (available at that proposes so many measures that I fear it will become just another icon cluttering a legislator's virtual desktop.

I hope that won't be the case, but consider the issues discussed around the dinner table, with neighbors, with co-workers. Consider the issues topping political agendas. Do school suspensions, black-owned businesses, adoption, juvenile detention, mentoring dominate?

The council's ability to draw experts, activists and concerned citizens together to plan an attack on such dismal conditions is laudable. But without elected leaders sharing the council's sense of urgency about homicide rates, arrest and incarceration rates, poverty, violence, disparate annual income levels, school performance and health issues of black men and boys, the council's work will be for naught.

If not out of a sense of humanity, the state should care about this segment of the population for economic reasons. The council's recommendations include:

Reestablishing the Governor's Ex-Offender Task Force, which recommended better job-training and substance-abuse services to help rehabilitate inmates; and automatically restoring the rights of ex-felons, enabling them to get a state license to become a nail specialist, beautician, nurse or construction-business owner.

Investing in preventive health care.

Expanding the Independent Living program aimed at preparing foster youth for adulthood.

Reviewing zero-tolerance policies in schools to reduce the number of youth referred to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Some recommendations require money: $250,000 is being requested in the next budget year to hire an executive director, set up local councils in each of Florida's 67 counties (reaching families, churches and community groups) and make the council a permanent commission (now, it's scheduled to sunset by 2011). "The council is aware of the budget crisis the state of Florida is facing," the report says, "however, to do nothing would be to continue to allow the underlying conditions negatively affecting Black men and boys to exist."

If the past is any guide, the Legislature will meet somewhere between doing nothing and spending a quarter-million dollars. The council has relied on staff from the attorney general's office and has met mostly by conference calls. The council concedes, "The information in this report may seem disheartening," but promises "there is hope."

In 2005-06, there were 10,075 black boys in the state's child welfare system and 42,174 black males in Florida's prisons. In 2006-07, there were 47,608 black males enrolled in Florida's community colleges, state universities and private campuses.

For the state to begin the council's many doable recommendations, the Legislature and Gov. Crist - and all Floridians - must make improving the status of black men and boys a priority.

Potential jurors dismissed at Villages murder trial

Jury selection to resume today


OCALA - Jury selection in the trial of Renaldo Devon McGirth, 19, and Jarrord Marqui Roberts, 21, two Marion County men accused of murder, suffered a setback on Thursday.

After initially denying a request by defense attorneys Michael Gourley and Candace Hawthorne, Circuit Judge Brian D. Lambert agreed to strike the panel of 22 jurors being questioned Thursday.

McGirth and Roberts are accused of the July 2006 murder of Diana Miller and the shooting of her husband, James, after a home robbery that ended in a high-speed chase and the release of the couple's kidnapped daughter, Sheila. If convicted, the men could face the death penalty.

What led to the dismissal of the 22 potential jurors was a question the judge posed.

Lambert asked the panel if any of them knew defendants McGirth and Roberts. One man, the only black person on Thursday's panel, said he knew McGirth. The judge then asked the man how he knew McGirth. In front of the entire panel, the man said he used to work at the Department of Juvenile Justice and knew McGirth from there.

When the panel of potential jurors left the courtroom, Hawthorne, who represents McGirth, asked to strike the panel based on the man's remark.

"That's highly prejudicial," Hawthorne said.

Gourley, one of Roberts' attorneys, also asked that the panel be removed based on the comment about the Department of Juvenile Justice, which is a detention center for minors accused of crimes.

"That has a criminal connotation," Gourley told Lambert. "This indicates Mr. McGirth has been in the system before."

Lambert denied the request, but reversed his opinion after lunch when State Attorney Brad King brought the judge copies of case law containing similar circumstances involving potential prejudicial statements.

King gave Lambert information regarding Richardson vs. Florida and the Florida Supreme Court case Watson vs. Florida.

"I had a gut concern about it," King told Lambert. "Here is my dilemma .Ê.Ê. this isn't my fight. This is something the defense should be arguing to you about."

Gourley asked the judge again to strike the panel.

"I think the connotation of the Department of Juvenile Justice incorporates within those words an understanding that is the detention/correction part of the system," Gourley said. "It equates with him having been involved in other crimes."

Gourley said it was no different from saying, "Lowell Correctional Institution."

Hawthorne said she agreed with Gourley and said, "You can't unring the bell."

After reading the Richardson case, Lambert reconsidered his stance and dismissed all 22 potential jurors.

Jury selection will resume at 9 a.m. today. The court will be looking for one more potential juror to complete the 12-member jury and two alternate jurors.

The 11 prospective jurors that were picked on Tuesday and Wednesday were not present at the time of the Department of Juvenile Justice comment and are still being considered as possible jurors. However, McGirth's attorney has two strikes remaining, Roberts' attorney has none and the state has 14 left.

If a jury is seated today, opening arguments likely would begin on Monday.

Susan Latham Carr may be reached at 352-867-4156 or

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Villages murder trial set to begin

Mourners are seen outside a memorial service for shooting victim Diana Miller of The Villages. Miller's accused killers go on trial beginning Tuesday.

Jury selection starts Tuesday


OCALA - Jury selection starts Tuesday in the trial of Renaldo Devon McGirth, 19, and Jarrord Marqui Roberts, 21, two Marion County men charged with murder, attempted murder, robbery and kidnapping. McGirth also is charged with felony fleeing and eluding.

Both are accused of the July 2006 murder of Diana Miller and the shooting of her husband, James, after a home robbery that ended in a high-speed chase and the release of the couple's kidnapped daughter, Sheila.

If found guilty, McGirth and Roberts could face the death penalty.

A third defendant, Theodore Houston, 18, pleaded guilty in December to lesser charges in exchange for his testimony against McGirth and Roberts.

According to police reports, the trio came to the Millers' home in The Villages on July 21, 2006, on the pretense of bringing Sheila, the Millers' only child, a gift. She had been injured in a recent car accident.

Sheila, 40, reportedly had given the men directions to the home at 9269 S.E. 179th Wesley St., and welcomed them when they arrived.

Believing the men were his daughter's friends, James, 69, went in to take a shower. After his shower, he was getting dressed when a man knocked on the bathroom door, grabbed him and took him at gunpoint into a bedroom. That is when he saw his wife lying on the floor covered in blood from a gunshot to the chest.

According to James' deposition, Diana, 63, told him not to say anything, that she was all right and that she could handle it.

He was forced to lie on the floor, his wife near his feet. Both then were shot in the head. Diana was killed. James waited until the men left and then climbed out the window and went to a neighbor's house.

State Attorney Brad King says Roberts taped Sheila's mouth, face and hands. The men are accused of kidnapping Sheila and stealing the Miller's 2000 Ford Windstar, using it to drive to the Oaks Mall in Gainesville. They reportedly wheeled Sheila around the mall in her wheelchair, stopping at several shops and ATM machines.

A short time later, a deputy spotted the Windstar just north of McIntosh on U.S. 441, and gave chase.

The van raced at speeds of up to 100 mph before the deputies hit the car, flipping it into a convenience store parking lot in the 9800 block of Northwest Gainesville Road.

One of the men was caught right away. The other two took off on foot into the woods but they, too, were apprehended quickly. Sheila had been left behind.

James Miller, who has recovered from his wounds, has said his daughter has a history of drug and alcohol abuse. He said he thinks she was involved in the robbery because she wanted the Millers' $750,000 in assets and life insurance.

In sworn statements, Sheila has said that McGirth was the shooter and that she was a victim. Her father said he does not know who did the shooting.

McGirth and Roberts are both charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, armed kidnapping and resisting arrest. Jurors will have to decide whether they were responsible for the crimes.

They may get some help from Theodore Houston, the third defendant, now a state's witness. Houston, who was a minor at the time of the murder, could have received a life sentence. He opted, instead, to plead guilty to the lesser charge of second-degree murder in addition to the attempted murder, robbery and kidnapping charges. He now faces 25 to 40 years in state prison.

Susan Latham Carr may be reached at 352-867-4156 or

Editorial: McDonough's legacy

It really is remarkable what Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough has accomplished in less than two years as Florida's prison chief.

Appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in February 2006, the decorated retired Army colonel inherited a department wracked by scandal, corruption and incompetence that reached its highest levels. McDonough's predecessor, James Crosby, went to prison for taking kickbacks from contractors.

The malfeasance didn't stop there. DOC officials were indicted or fired for a long list of misdeeds, including public brawls, handing out fake DOC IDs to friends and family, using and distributing steroids, theft, wanton inmate beatings, and, remarkably, taking payoffs totaling more than $1 million from hundreds of inmates' families to facilitate transfers to more desirable prisons.

There was a culture of corruption that permeated the agency, and it started at the top.

Using hard-nosed, by-the-book management tactics, McDonough waged what he often called a "culture war" to try to clean up the DOC. The casualties of that war were dozens of corrupt or incompetent prison officials, including wardens and assistant wardens.

As McDonough cleaned house, though, he never forgot to praise the vast majority of DOC's employees for being decent and hard-working credits to the department. That, however, didn't stop him from occasionally ruffling their feathers, as well, by instituting loyalty oaths, random drug tests and minimum physical fitness requirements.

McDonough has submitted his resignation, effective at month's end. He is being replaced by Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief.

Floridians should be grateful to McDonough. He took the reins of the state's largest agency, with 95,000 inmates, 150,000 probationers, 28,000 employees and $2.2 billion budget, at a tumultuous time and changed a culture in a very short time.

McDonough's legacy is a rehabilitated DOC, one in which the people of Florida can once again have confidence and pride.

Death row inmate Mark Dean Schwab denied hearing

The Florida Supreme Court this morning ruled in favor of a lower court's decision.

Sarah Lundy

Sentinel Staff Writer

1:59 PM EST, January 24, 2008

The Florida Supreme Court this morning ruled in favor of a lower court's decision to deny death row inmate Mark Dean Schwab an evidentiary hearing to present what his attorneys called new evidence.

Schwab - who has been on death row since 1992 - was convicted of raping and killing 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez of Cocoa. He was set to be executed by lethal injection on Nov. 15 at Florida State Prison in Starke. Hours before the execution, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay.

The country's top court has delayed several executions across the country since late September after agreeing to review a Kentucky case. The justices are considering whether the way Kentucky and other states, including Florida, administer the three-drug combination to death-row prisoners is constitutional. An opinion is expected this summer.

While the U.S. Supreme Court deals with the constitutional issue, Schwab's attorneys were working to get their client a hearing to present evidence by a doctor who testified in Schwab's 1992 sentencing. They also want to show how the state isn't prepared to proceed with the injection. Notes - taken by state officials during five mock executions in July - show how participants botched two of them.

Brevard Circuit Court Judge Charles Holcomb disagreed, saying the mock executions followed previous execution guidelines and were not relevant to current protocols. Holcomb wrote in the order that he did not think the doctor's new opinion would have an effect on the death sentence.

The Florida Supreme Court backed Holcomb's ruling.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Assailing the US record on juve sentencing

Today's San Francisco Chronicle has this commentary, headlined "U.S. among harshest for sentencing children." Here is how it begins:

To many in the United States, the country of Somalia conjures up images of a primitive Third World country. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Somalia and the United States share an unfortunate commonality - they are the only countries in the world that refuse to sign the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child because of its ban on sentencing children to die in prison.

Under the U.N. covenant, sentencing children, even those who commit serious crimes, to permanent imprisonment is considered inhumane and inconsistent with civilized society and thus rejected by the rest of the world. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, there are now about a dozen people outside the United States and Somalia who were sentenced to permanent imprisonment as children: South Africa has four, Tanzania has one, and Israel has seven. In contrast, the United States has 2,270 children serving such a sentence, including 227 in California.

Some recent related posts on juve life sentences:

New HRW report assailing juve LWOP in California
California considering eliminating LWOP for juveniles
Nebraska working to reform juve LWOP sentences
NY Times coverage of very young lifers
Fascinating juve clemency development in Colorado
Life without parole for juvenile may be cruel, but it is not unusual
The next issue in sentencing of juveniles?
Forthcoming PBS program "When Kids Get Life"
Does Roper suggest young juve LWOP is unconstitutional?

Death penalty degrades presumed civilized society

Palm Beach Post Editorial

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A reader wrote, "388 on state's Death Row? Where is penalty?" (Jan. 2), denouncing The Palm Beach Post's stand against the death penalty in Florida. While the letter was certainly emotional, stating, "Being on the scene where a fellow trooper was shot and killed only strengthens my resolve to champion capital punishment," the reason implied by the writer for support of the death penalty is revenge.

The letter suggests that the debate about lethal injection being "cruel and unusual" should be balanced with the pain that crime victims suffer. Is this to suggest that society is just like the criminals? Civilized society should be better than people guilty of capital crimes. Just because a killer disregards the humanity of his/her victim does not give society license to be immoral as well. Numerous Death Row inmates have been released due to DNA-based evidence and more are being released all the time.

We know that there have been innocent people executed in this country. Could not the brother or friend of the unfairly executed equally say, "Being on the scene where my brother was unjustly executed for a crime he did not commit only strengthens my resolve to oppose capital punishment"? Who would have the stronger argument? In addition, when the state kills an innocent man, is it not also guilty of a capital crime?

The United States is one of the last developed countries that still executes. Even Russia has abolished the death penalty. Capital punishment is more expensive than the alternatives, and, quite frankly, below the morality of civilized society. Revenge does not justify the loss of society's soul.


Our view: A broken process

Executions freeze opens door for review of Florida's flawed death penalty system

The Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a Kentucky case on whether the lethal injection method Florida and other states use to execute death row criminals violates the constitutional ban on cruel punishment.

Brevard County has a big stake in that debate.

The court stayed executions while it deliberates, including that of Mark Dean Schwab, who was scheduled to be put to death for the 1991 kidnapping, rape and murder of 11-year-old Cocoa resident Junny Rios-Martinez.

That delay prolonged the agony of Junny's family, and with it justice.

And is why the court should decide the issue for once and for all so more last-minute stays can be avoided and crime victims' families spared further uncertainty.

A ruling probably won't come before June, but it looks unlikely the court will ban lethal injection.

No matter the outcome, Florida lawmakers should use the hiatus on executions to rethink the state's death penalty system, because the possible unconstitutionality of lethal injection is the least of the problems plaguing it.

Florida has released more wrongfully convicted inmates from death row than any other state -- 22 since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

That alone shows just how broken the process is.

But a 2006 study by leading state prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges for the American Bar Association found it has numerous other faults.

Those include:

Minorities and the poor disproportionately receive death sentences.

Death penalty lawyers are paid so poorly that capable attorneys won't take the work.

Persons with severe mental disabilities have been executed.

Courts don't properly instruct juries about sentencing duties or require that death sentence verdicts be unanimous.

We continue to believe the death penalty can have a place in Florida's justice system, though it should be used only in narrowly defined and heinous crimes, such as child slayings, serial killings and the murder of police officers.

But we also believe that life without parole locked-down in a no-frills cell 23 hours a day for decades can serve as a punishment worse than death.

We also cannot say this strongly enough:

So long as the state chooses to execute persons, it bears a moral duty to make sure death penalty cases are conducted under the highest judicial standards to prevent horrible errors, such as wrongful convictions or unjust sentences due to prejudice or incompetent counsel.

On a practical level, the cost of the state's death penalty system also calls for review.

The average length of stay on death row in Florida -- where 387 prisoners now await execution -- is 12 years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Each execution costs the state $24 million, and Florida would save $51 million per year by sentencing all first-degree murderers to life in prison without parole, according to a study conducted by the Palm Beach Post in 2000.

New Jersey repealed its death penalty in Decemember in part because lawmakers found it costs more to keep a prisoner for years on death row than in prison for life. A handful of other states are also debating abolishing it.

It's time for a similar debate in Florida, and the Supreme Court's de facto moratorium on executions opens the door for legislators to begin the discussion this year.


Death penalty system is a mess, legal experts tell Calif. panel

By Howard Mintz
Mercury News
Article Launched: 01/11/2008 01:40:15 AM PST

Leading judges and scholars provided a grim verdict Thursday on how well the California justice system is carrying out the ultimate punishment as a state commission began an unprecedented review of the death penalty.

From California Chief Justice Ronald George, a death penalty supporter, to law professors who oppose capital punishment, the theme was consistent: The state's death penalty system is a mess.

George and six other witnesses, including a federal appeals court judge and Florida's former chief justice, named a string of reforms to improve death penalty justice in California, where there are now nearly 670 inmates on death row who typically spend decades awaiting execution.

But for the most part, many of the proposals called for spending more money - just as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger elsewhere in the building was proposing dramatic cuts in education and prisons to cope with a $14 billion budget shortfall.

"The current system is not functioning effectively," George told the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. "We're at a point now where choices must be made."

The hearing in Sacramento was the first of three the state commission has scheduled to explore the death penalty system. Thursday's focus was on proposals to ease the nation's biggest backlog of death row appeals, as well as studies that show California has applied the death penalty inconsistently.

Former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, chair of the commission, stressed that the panel will not address the "morality of the death penalty," only issues related to the handling of capital trials and appeals. Two years ago, the Legislature established the commission, a cross-section of prosecutors, defense lawyers and other justice experts, to examine the state's death penalty and other criminal justice issues.

While George and others testified on plans to reduce delays in the appeals process, other witnesses said California could solve some of its problems by limiting the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty. The state now has 33 so-called "special circumstance" crimes that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty, ranging from typical offenses such as robbery to killing during a carjacking or by causing a train wreck.

Critics say that has clogged death row with killers who are not necessarily "the worst of the worst."

Ellen Kreitzberg, a Santa Clara University law professor, provided a study of nearly 800 California death sentences that shows the current death penalty may be too "expansive. " Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan said the overly broad list of crimes that qualify for the death penalty is the root of California's bloated death row.

"That's unfathomable," said Kogan, who advocates roughly five types of crimes, such as double murder or killing a police officer, that should qualify for a death penalty trial. "You are having a problem in this state because the front end of the system is overloaded."

George, meanwhile, formally introduced his controversial proposal to shift a share of death penalty appeals from the state Supreme Court to the state's six intermediate appeals courts, including the San Jose-based 6th District Court of Appeal. Arthur Alarcon, a federal appeals court judge, also supported that plan Thursday, as well as calling for a new super agency of death row appellate lawyers funded by both the state and federal governments to handle state and federal appeals.

George and Alarcon insist that shifting the state appeals would reduce the 10-plus years of delays in getting just the first round of appeals heard by the state Supreme Court. For example, George testified that there are already 80 death penalty appeals ready to be argued in the Supreme Court, but doing so would prevent the state's high court from handling the other crucial civil and criminal issues on its docket.

"Even if the Supreme Court were to become solely a death penalty court, it would take three or four years to process the backlog of appeals," George said.

Several witnesses, including Kogan, speculated that George's plan might actually add to delays and inconsistent rulings in capital cases. George's proposal would require a constitutional amendment because current state law requires the Supreme Court to hear death row appeals.

The commission also heard from a number of death penalty foes at the conclusion of the hearing, including several parents of murder victims. "I know revenge is not justice," said Lorrain Taylor, whose twin sons were killed in Oakland by a gunman yet to be found.

The commission will meet again in Los Angeles on Feb. 20 to consider testimony from defense lawyers who represent murder suspects in capital trials, as well as prosecutors who've handled death penalty trials.

Contact Howard Mintz at or (408) 286-0236.

Trial Begins For Men Allegedly Connected To Jewelry Store Killing

POSTED: 5:48 pm EST January 17, 2008
UPDATED: 11:01 pm EST January 17, 2008

MIAMI -- Five years ago, a group of armed robbers entered a local Mayor's jewelry store and killed a security guard.

The trial for two men allegedly involved in the crime began on Thursday at the Miami Metro Justice Building.

The prosecution calls the men the "Rolex Robbers." They said they had planned to rob the jewelry store of tens of thousands of dollars of watches.

What they hadn't planned on, authorities said, is that the security guard would fight back and surveillance would capture everything.

An eyewitness in the murder trial of the Mayor's security guard broke down crying while explaining what happened inside the Merrick Park jewelry store in Coral Gables on Jan. 13, 2003.

"I went straight to the man," said witness Carlos de Quesada. "I remember seeing, in the back, blood coming out right there."

Surveillance from that day showed the final moments of Luis Brito's life. The video showed two masked gunmen entering Mayor's. Brito reached for his weapon, but it was too late.

Police arrested four men in connection with the homicide-robbery.

"Andre Williams was to drive the car," assistant state attorney Breezye Telfair said. "Shird Myrick, well he was the tool man. He was the person holding the bag with the hammers."

Williams and Myrick, who went by the alias "Chico," were never seen inside the store, but outdoor surveillance video shot before the robbery showed one man.

"Almost immediately, Crimestoppers, the tips just continue to come in, come in, come in," Telfair said. "Everyone is saying the same thing: 'It's Chico. It's Shird. It's Chico.'"

Myrick's attorney argued that there was no physical evidence against his client.

"The person has a very different forehead from Mr. Myrick," defense attorney John Weinberg said. "The person has slightly different hair."

Weinberg also argued that police had not found the tool bag Telfair had mentioned his client had been holding.

After the robbery, police caught up to Williams, the alleged getaway driver, thousands of miles from South Florida.

Prosecutors said he left a latex glove inside a stolen BMW that was used in the robbery.

"Miami-Dade police go to Iowa and find Andre Williams," Telfair said. "They get DNA. It matches evidence found in the silver BMW."

However, one of William's defense attorneys said reasonable doubt lies inside that glove.

"One of the gloves has a mixture of DNA," the attorney said.

The trial will resume on Friday.

Ehren Witt and Milton Hall, the two masked gunmen who were inside the store and allegedly killed Brito, have yet to stand trial. If they are convicted of murder, they could get the death penalty.

Eyewitness ID: Reliable Or Risky?

Kyle Martin

Published: January 19, 2008

The wrong place at the wrong time can bring a world of trouble.

For Joseph Caggiano, it was Dec. 17 at a Sunoco gas station, where he briefly stopped to buy a pack of cigarettes.

Within 24 hours he was the primary suspect in a string of armed robberies.

The evidence was damning.

A handprint lifted from a paper on the Sunoco's door matched his and even more important, the clerk picked him as the perpetrator out of six photos.

Caggiano turned himself in when he learned there was a warrant out for his arrest, but he clammed up and asked for a lawyer when a detective started asking questions.

In a strange turn of events, the detective came across the actual suspect in person as he continued his investigation. An arrest was made and by the next day, 19-year-old Caggiano was a free man.

But not everyone is so lucky.

There are no firm figures on how many people end up in Caggiano's situation, but consider that eyewitness misidentification accounts for 75 percent of the 210 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence.

Statistics compiled by the New York-based Innocence Project also show that most victims served an average of 12 years in prison and 15 faced the death penalty before their innocence was proven.

James Doyle, author of True Witness, calls it a "tragedy without villains."

"Cops are going by the book, generally the witnesses are sincere," he said, adding that both parties "want to get the right guy" but the methodology is flawed.

Researchers urge reforms in the methods detectives use to secure eyewitness testimony. Years of experiments and scientific scrutiny of current practices show there are simple methods to cut down on false IDs.

Principal among their targets are photo packs like the one used to identify Caggiano.

But the changes are not a magic bullet either and carry their own risks. And the validity of eyewitness identification varies on a case by case basis, says Assistant State Attorney Bill Gladson.

The prosecutor has successfully argued before the Florida Supreme Court that it's up to the jury to decide whether witness testimony is credible, not an expert.

"That's what cross examination is for," Gladson said, "to flush it all out."

A case for reform?

What investigators should consider is that witness or victim identification is unlike any other evidence because it's solely in one person's mind, says Robert Shomer, an eyewitness expert who has testified in more than 400 trials.

"Under the best circumstances, (eyewitness identification) is the least reliable," he said.

In instances like the Caggiano case, the suspect pulled up his shirt to reveal what appeared to be a handgun tucked into the waistband, investigators say. Life-threatening situations further corrupt the memory, according to Shomer, in part because the weapon serves as a magnet for the eyes and draws attention away from the suspect's face.

Local defense attorney Jimmy Brown represented Caggiano and said the clerk likely picked out his client because he was a regular at the Sunoco.

"People are prone to pick out someone who looks familiar and that's what we had," he said.

Doyle's solution is for investigators to treat a witness' memory with "CSI seriousness." By his standards, memory would fall into the same category as blood and semen in that they are "very difficult to recover and easy to contaminate."

Offering True or False

As far back as the late 1800s, scholars were questioning the accuracy of eyewitness identification. The landmark publications "On the Witness Stand" in 1907 and "Convicting the Innocent" in 1932 took a hard look at witness' memories and their role in convictions.

Even legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover weighed in on the subject to sell the concept of collecting fingerprints as a safeguard against misidentification.

But it's over the past three decades that scientific studies really kicked off; many got a boost by the advent of DNA exonerations beginning in the early 1990s.

Researchers now suggest that photos be shown one at a time, versus spreading them all out on a table for a witness to choose from.

That compels a witness to draw on the memory for each picture instead of comparing pictures and choosing what looks best, according to Doyle.

Using that method gives "six true or false (options) instead of one multiple choice," he said.

Experts also encourage the adoption of the "double blind" method, meaning someone not tied to the investigation show the pictures. They worry that an investigator's non-verbal cues, however inadvertent, can be leading for a witness.

A sigh of relief or a pat on the back can boost the confidence of the victim from that day on through to the trial when the suspect is identified in court.

They also recommend that the investigator forewarn the witness that the actual suspect "might or might not" appear in the photos.

Shaky Results In Field Tests

At first, these methods were hailed as the cutting-edge cure for misidentification. But when the Chicago Police Department tested them out in 2004, the results revealed they were not the panacea promised.

That study found that witnesses were 9 percent more likely to choose an innocent person and only 45 percent chose the real suspect when using the sequential, double-blind method. That's compared to a 60 percent rate of choosing the right suspect when using the traditional lineup method.

Advocates of the reforms claim that Chicago's experiment was tainted because it was supervised by police officers.

Field tests in other jurisdictions have also found it's difficult to pull unbiased staff off the job to show the witness pictures in the double-blind method.

Gladson, the Hernando County prosecutor, argues that eyewitness identification cannot be completely discredited just because some deem it flimsy evidence.

He successfully convinced the Florida Supreme Court considering the appeal of a convicted murderer that the trial judge had the right to exclude an eyewitness expert.

"Lab research doesn't apply on a case by case basis," Gladson said.

County's Practice With Photo Packs

Field tests not withstanding, New Jersey, North Carolina and several smaller jurisdictions are embracing the double-blind sequential method.

At the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, the proposed reforms are followed to a certain extent.

According to the lead detective in Caggiano's case, Philip Lakin, forensics technicians pull together the photo packs and place six photos on a single, glossy sheet.

The technicians do their best to find similar-looking suspects and avoid drawing photos with different backgrounds, according to Lakin. For example, one mug shot should not be included among five passport photos.

After telling the witness the suspects' photo might not be included, Lakin said he steps out of sight when the witness is looking over the photos to avoid interfering with their decision.

The witness or victim writes the number of the suspect he has chosen and includes it in a brief, sworn affidavit. Then the whole photo pack is placed into evidence, according to Lakin.

The detective makes it clear that "photo packs do not solve cases. It's one of many tools."

Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or

Housemate of suspected turnpike killers convicted

By Derek Simmonsen

Saturday, January 19, 2008

He was a low-level man, the guy who transported drugs and helped cook powder cocaine into crack.

Kevin Vetere, 23, also happened to live in the same West Palm Beach home, packed with guns and drugs, as two other men who are accused of killing a family of four on the side of Florida's Turnpike in Port St. Lucie in October 2006.

Though he had nothing to do with the killings of Jose Escobedo, his wife and two young children, either before or after they occurred, Vetere's role in the drug ring was enough to land him a 12-year prison sentence Friday for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.

Vetere was the first of the indicted group to plead guilty and the first to be sentenced. He has made no deal to testify at the trial of the other defendants, but U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley urged him to consider cooperating with the government.

"Growing up, this is all I had," Vetere told the judge. "I'm here to accept what I've done."

His co-defendants Ricardo Sanchez, 24, and Daniel Troya, 24, are charged with armed carjacking resulting in death and using a firearm in a violent crime resulting in death for the Oct. 13, 2006, killings of the Escobedo family. The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office has said Jose Escobedo was the head of a large drug ring and Sanchez and Troya "killed their leader" when they took him out; prosecutors acknowledged Friday that the killings were drug-related.

Three others have been charged federally in the case, mostly with drug crimes, but don't face charges in the killings. Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Carlton described Vetere as "mostly a gofer and courier" for Daniel Varela, who was called a "person of interest" in the killings and was indicted alongside Sanchez and Troya, but has not been charged with the deaths.

In September 2006, a month before the Escobedo slayings, Vetere moved into the West Palm Beach home where Sanchez, Troya and the others lived. Prosecutors said there were drugs throughout the house, and "it was common knowledge to members of the Varela organization that firearms were present throughout the residence for the immediate access of any member of the organization," court records show.

The prosecution and defense disagreed on how much of the drug ring's actions Vetere should be held accountable for, as well as whether his potential sentence should be lowered in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows judges to take into account the difference between crack and powder cocaine penalties.

In sentencing Vetere, Hurley noted he had a long criminal record stretching back into his teen years and was involved in a very dangerous drug ring.

"It's a high volume operation. It's an armed operation," Hurley said. "These are incredibly dangerous crimes."

Vetere will be on supervised release for five years after he is released from prison. Had he been convicted at trial, he could have faced life in prison. Prosecutors objected to the sentence, as they were seeking a minimum of 14 years against him.

• Ricardo Sanchez, 24, and Daniel Troya, 24, are charged with armed carjacking resulting in death and using a firearm in a violent crime resulting in death for the Oct. 13, 2006, killings of Greenacres residents Jose and Yessica Escobedo and their sons Luis Damien, 4, and Luis Julian, 3.

• The Attorney General must make the final decision whether to seek the death penalty against the men. The U.S. Attorney's Office has said the decision is likely to come by Feb. 15.

• Hurley signed an order Wednesday requiring the government to make a decision by Feb. 20. If it doesn't, the government waives the right to seek death. Attorneys are set to meet again on the case Feb. 20.