Saturday, January 12, 2008

Death Sentence Lifted In Quadruple Murder

POSTED: 9:18 am EST January 11, 2008

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A Miami drug trafficker convicted in the 1988 murders of four people near Pensacola should get life in prison and not death, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The justices voted 4-3 to reduce the sentence of Ronald Lee Williams, 44, who ran a drug ring known as the Miami Boys, but the justices unanimously upheld Williams' first-degree murder conviction.

Williams was not present when the four victims died, but he had ordered other ring members to kill them because he believed they had stolen drugs and money from the Miami Boys. The three men and a woman were stripped and tied up before being stabbed and shot.

A fifth victim, Amanda Merrill, survived the massacre in a Pleasant Grove duplex although she had been shot in the back of the head and her throat slit.

The high court majority ruled Williams had received ineffective counsel during the penalty phase of his trial because his lawyer decided not to present the jury or judge with mitigating evidence of an abusive childhood, substance abuse and mental impairment.

The jury voted for a life sentence, but Circuit Judge Nickolas Geeker overrode that recommendation and ordered the death penalty.

Geeker later turned down Williams' ineffective counsel claim, ruling he still would have imposed the death sentence if the mitigating evidence had been presented. The evidence included a psychologist's report that Williams had an IQ of 75, borderline for mental retardation, and functioned emotionally and mentally like a 13- or 14-year-old.

In an unsigned opinion the majority justices ruled Geeker's "personal and subjective analysis" of the mitigating evidence was improper and that this was "a classic case of ineffectiveness and prejudice."

Chief 1st District Court of Appeal Judge Edwin Browning Jr., sitting in for Justice Kenneth Bell, cast the deciding vote. Bell, who had served in the 1st Circuit Court with Geeker, recused himself from the case.

In dissent, Justice Charles Wells wrote the defense lawyer was justified in deciding against offering the psychologist's report because Williams appeared normal in court.

"The majority here engages in a classic 20-20 hindsight analysis about a strategic choice made by an experienced attorney," Wells wrote.

Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis and Justice Raoul Cantero joined in his dissent. The other majority justices are Harry Lee Anstead, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.

Two co-defendants, Timothy Robinson, and Michael Coleman, also received death sentences. Darrell Frazier was sentenced to life and his brother, Bruce Frazier, was convicted on lesser charges and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

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