Sunday, April 6, 2008

NAACP questions prosecutors

BRADENTON Michael Leon Walker is 19 and faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life behind bars for murder even though he did not kill anyone.

Walker and another teenager, Anthony C. Lewis, are accused in the death of Daniel Ramsey, who was shot after startling two burglars at his home. Ramsey, 67, was killed in front of his wife on Valentine's Day.

Lewis, authorities say, had armed himself with a revolver stolen from the Ramsey home and used it to kill Daniel Ramsey.

Walker confessed, telling Manatee County sheriff's detectives he was the getaway driver. He said he did not know Ramsey was going to be shot.

That Walker is facing the same punishment as Lewis -- life in prison without parole for murder -- is "extreme and unfair," the president of the Manatee County chapter of the NAACP, Edward Bailey, said in a letter to State Attorney Earl Moreland.

The NAACP, in a rare move, interjected its voice in the Ramsey homicide case, calling the state's pursuit of a life sentence racially motivated compared with lenient plea deals prosecutors have offered in other murder cases.

Two teenagers charged with murder in the May 2007 shooting death of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III of Bradenton were recently sentenced on reduced charges to four years in prison in exchange for testifying against the alleged triggerman. Stacy was black. Ramsey, a retired employee of Manatee County government, was white.

"I guess in the state attorney's eyes a 9-year-old black boy's life isn't as important as a retired Caucasian male," Bailey wrote in the letter. "As taxpayers and citizens we not only expect fair treatment, we demand it."

The NAACP is urging the state to find a "better alternative" to life in prison for Walker.

Walker's attorney, Jennifer Joynt-Sanchez, said the state rejected her offer for a 25-year prison term. The state has not made an offer.

Stacy Williams' parents said recently that the prison sentences were not fair. But they said they understood the state was focusing its resources on landing a murder conviction against the actual shooter.

Moreland, who reviewed the NAACP letter Thursday, said in an interview that racial bias is not driving the murder prosecution of Walker and had no impact on the deals reached in the Stacy Williams murder prosecution.

"Race plays absolutely no role in our decision-making process," Moreland said. "Each case needs to be handled independently based on the facts and circumstances. That is what we do."

Walker can be prosecuted for murder because Daniel Ramsey was killed in the process of another crime -- burglary. Florida laws mirror those in other states in holding an accomplice in a murder just as culpable as the actual killer.

An unintended death that happens during a crime can also be prosecuted as murder. A Port Charlotte man, Frank Morse Jr., is serving life for murder stemming from a car crash. In 2002, Morse was speeding from deputies when his car slammed into a vehicle driven by then-chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission, Walter Brewer.

A grand jury in Bradenton indicted Anthony Lewis and Michael Walker on first-degree murder charges in the Ramsey homicide, but prosecutors chose not to pursue the death penalty. The decision angered Ramsey's widow, Roberta, who is the state's chief witness in the murder case.

Plea deals are not automatic. Prosecutors review a range of factors, including the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence, the victim's desire for appropriate punishment and the defendant's prior criminal history.

Prosecutors use discretion to determine what punishment a person should get.

Moreland would not discuss any details of the Walker case because it is pending. But it appears the state did not need Walker's testimony against Lewis. Roberta Ramsey, the victim's widow, provided detailed observations at the scene.

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