Friday, May 30, 2008

Floridians spend an estimated $51 million a year to retain our Death Penalty system above the cost of permanent incarceration

Whether you believe in the death penalty or not here is yet another lost opportunity ($51 million) that the Florida legislators missed in their blind zeal to balance the budget. They would much rather show us how “macho” they are by killing someone rather than using that money to help sick children or the mentally ill. Add the $51 million to the $350 million for prison beds and you can see just how concerned they are about people in need.

FLORIDA EXECUTION: Florida's next execution is scheduled for July 1st. With almost 400 people in our Death House, Florida has the second largest Death Row in the U.S. For a complete list, see: While Floridians spend an estimated $51 million a year to retain our Death Penalty system above the cost of permanent incarceration, victims’ services are being cut-back, crime prevention programs are being disbanded and thousands of murders and violent crimes remain unsolved. For a growing number of Floridians, the fight to end executions is not about is about priorities.
FMI: Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

Take Action Now: Write Gov. Crist and Florida’s Attorney General to express your strong opposition to lifting Florida’s moratorium on executions.

Office of Governor Charlie Crist
State of Florida
The Capitol
400 S. Monroe St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001
Email the Governor
Executive Office of the Governor Switchboard: (850) 488-7146

Office of Attorney General Bill McCollum
State of Florida
The Capitol PL-01
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1050
Switchboard: (850) 414-3300

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Man who took Belleville girl to Florida could face life in prison

U.S. charges lodged for pickup of girl, 15

The 49-year-old Florida man who police said picked up a 15-year-old girl from Belleville East High School and drove her to Florida could face up to life in prison if convicted of federal charges filed Friday.

Heriberto Torres-Rodriguez, of Opa-Locka, Fla., was charged with transporting a minor in interstate commerce with the intent of engaging in sexual activity, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. He also was charged with traveling in interstate commerce for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. Conviction on each count also carries a $250,000 fine.

The girl's father reported her missing Tuesday when she didn't return home from Belleville East High School.

Police said Torres-Rodriguez rented a car May 19 in Miami and then drove to Belleville to pick the girl up from the school parking lot Tuesday morning. He returned the vehicle to the rental dealer at 3:04 p.m. Thursday. Police said they were able to get the rental vehicle's description and the time Torres-Rodriguez picked the girl up from the school's video surveillance.

Florida authorities arrested him Friday in Opa-Locka, Fla., where the two were found with another man, whose identity was not released.

The Associated Press reported Friday that the two met in Puerto Rico about a year ago. Belleville police reported Thursday they met on the Internet.

The girl's father has said FBI agents visited his home in Belleville and seized his daughter's personal computer.

Torres-Rodriguez is expected to return to the metro-east for proceedings on the charges.

As of Sunday afternoon, the girl had not returned home. A woman who answered the phone Tuesday night at the girl's father's home in Belleville did not wish to comment on whether the girl had come home since then.

Contact reporter Rickeena J. Richards at or 239-2562.

Death-row inmate pins hope on Texas lab

By Jamal Thalji, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, May 28, 2008 8:47 PM

NEW PORT RICHEY — In December, death-row inmate Samuel Jason Derrick won the right to have evidence in his 1988 murder conviction tested for DNA.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic that has used DNA testing to exonerate and free dozens from death row, hopes to do the same for Derrick.

But first the clinic had to find someone to actually do the tests.

This month, the Innocence Project finally lined up a lab and got the judge's blessing to ship the evidence from the 1987 stabbing of a Moon Lake store owner.

Circuit Judge Stanley Mills agreed last year to DNA testing of evidence — a partly eaten hot dog, blood found under a picnic table and scrapings from the victim's fingernails — with one caveat:
"Initially the judge wanted a Florida lab," said Innocence Project attorney Alba Morales.

That was five months ago. Morales told the St. Petersburg Times the Innocence Project couldn't find a lab in Florida that could meet the defense's most important criteria: be able to perform certain cutting-edge DNA tests and enter the test results into the FBI database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

But a lab in Dallas, Orchid Cellmark, can do all the things the judge and defense want done, Morales said. At a May 13 hearing, all sides agreed to ship the evidence to Texas.

The order is still being drafted, but once it's done, the evidence will be sent via Federal Express from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. The Innocence Project is footing the bill for the tests, which could cost thousands of dollars.

Then the real wait will begin. It will take months before the test results are known — assuming there's anything left that can still be tested.

Derrick was 20 when he was arrested for the 1987 murder of 55-year-old storekeeper Rama Sharma. The victim was found slashed and stabbed to death in his blood-soaked Moon Lake store. Missing was $360.

Detectives said that Derrick broke down during an interview and confessed: "All right, I did it."

But in 2007, Derrick recanted, saying a detective coerced him into a false confession by threatening to put his infant son in foster care.

Derrick said he had been abused in foster care. Now 41, he has spent more than half his life behind bars, on death row.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at or (727) 869-6236.

Gag order issued in middle school killing trial

Michael Hernandez, 18, accused of killing his friend, Jaime Gough, in a bathroom at Southwood Middle School in 2004, talks to his lawyer, left, Richard Rosenbaum during trial.


Jury selection began Wednesday in the trial of a former Southwood Middle student accused of killing another student in a school bathroom.
Michael Hernandez, 18, is accused of stabbing Jaime Gough to death in 2004, when both boys were 14.

Before attorneys began questioning potential jurors, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger issued a gag order in the case, prohibiting the attorneys and witnesses from speaking publicly about it.

The state attorney's office had requested the gag order after seeing Hernandez's attorney, Richard Rosenbaum, speaking to the media outside the courtroom on Tuesday.

Rosenbaum opposed the order, but Schlesinger said he thought it was the only way to protect Hernandez's right to a fair trial.

''The case needs to be tried in this courtroom, not in the newspaper or on television,'' the judge said.

The order was also opposed by attorneys for The Miami Herald, WFOR-CBS 4 and WTVJ-NBC 6.

Schlesinger refused a state request for an order sealing the names of the jurors and restricting the media from publishing their photos.

The judge agreed with media attorneys that the measure was not necessary.

Attorneys on both sides planned to question potential jurors as a group and individually about a variety of issues, including their schedules over the next few weeks because the trial is expected to last three or even four weeks.

They will also be asked if they have seen or read anything about the case, which drew national attention in 2004.

Potential jurors will also be asked about their views of insanity pleas and children who commit crimes.

Hernandez and his attorney do not dispute that he stabbed Jaime Gough. Rosenbaum is arguing that Michael was insane at the time of the killing.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Hernandez will spend the rest of his life in prison. If he is found not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be sent for treatment.

Jury selection is set to continue Thursday.

Prosecutors Won't Seek Death Penalty Against Onstott

By THOMAS W. KRAUSE The Tampa Tribune

Published: May 28, 2008

Updated: 05/28/2008 01:03 pm

TAMPA - Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against David Lee Onstott, who is charged in the death of 13-year-old Sarah Michelle Lunde.

On Friday, the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office filed notice with the court withdrawing its intent to seek execution, should a jury convict Onstott.

"That's good news for Mr. Onstott," said Assistant Public Defender John Skye. "Other than that I have no comment."

Prosecutors declined to comment.

The case against Onstott is expected to be difficult for prosecutors at trial, scheduled to start Aug. 11. They have no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and the majority of Onstott's statements to law enforcement were thrown out by a judge.

Onstott had asked for an attorney but was not provided one, Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta previously ruled. Last month, the 2nd District Court of Appeal backed up Ficarrotta on that ruling.

David Parry, a private defense attorney not affiliated with the case, said prosecutors might be thinking that jurors will hold the evidence to a higher standard if the death penalty were a possibility. When the evidence is not as solid as prosecutors would like, jurors might be more willing to convict if they do not think it will result in execution, he said.

On April 9, 2005, Sarah had just returned from a church trip. She briefly spoke with her brother and his friend, who went out to get food. Two days later, her mother reported Sarah missing.

Her body was found in a muddy pond near her Ruskin home, anchored with concrete blocks.

Investigators immediately focused on Onstott, a sometime boyfriend of Sarah's mother. Sarah's brother said Onstott was at their mobile home the night Sarah disappeared.

Over several days, detectives interrogated Onstott, who had signed forms agreeing to speak to them without a lawyer present. Then, on April 14, 2005, Onstott told a detective that he would not sign any more forms without speaking with his attorney.

Minutes later, Onstott made a statement to another detective. The detectives continued to interview him over the next two days without a lawyer.

Ficarrotta ruled that Onstott's statements could not be used. The first detective had an obligation to tell the second detective that Onstott asked for a lawyer. They also could not initiate anymore conversations with him.

At trial, prosecutors will use Sarah's brother as a witness that Onstott was at their home.

They will also be able to use statements Onstott made to a nurse and a jail deputy.

After Onstott spoke with detectives, he was sent to the jail infirmary on suicide watch. There, he made an incriminating statement to a nurse and a detention deputy, sheriff's officials have said. Ficarrotta has ruled that those statements could be used at trial. The appeals judges agreed.

Those statements have not been released publicly.

Reporter Thomas W. Krause can be reached at (813) 259-7698 or

Mentally incompetent defendants on rise

By Kevin Johnson and Andrew Seaman, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The number of accused felons declared mentally incompetent to stand trial is rising in 10 of the nation's 12 largest states, delaying local prosecutions and swamping state mental health and prison systems, a USA TODAY review finds.
These defendants cost hundreds of millions of dollars to treat and house as local governments tighten their budgets because of a slowing economy.

Legal analysts attribute the increase to a lack of mental health care, judges' increased openness to such claims and legal strategies by defendants to try to avoid harsh punishment.

"It's a huge problem," says Joshua Marquis, a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. "It's equally bad for the accused and the victims" because cases linger.

Criminal defendants who do not understand the legal proceedings against them are generally declared by judges to be incompetent for trial. Most are referred to mental health facilities and treated. The length of treatment varies from an average of three weeks in Virginia to more than nine months in Tennessee before they are deemed fit for trial or mental health experts determine they cannot be successfully treated, the USA TODAY review found.

There is wide variation in how states track thousands of incompetency rulings, and some do not track them at all. Of the 12 most populous states, Texas reported a decline last year and New Jersey did not provide data.

Among states reporting increases:

• Florida: State policy analysts reported in March that incompetent defendants there doubled from 1,061 to 2,123 in the past five years. Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis says that reflects a lack of access to treatment even before the accused enter the criminal justice system. Florida officials spend about $250 million yearly on treatment aimed at restoring mental fitness. The state projects the cost will double in the next seven years.

• Ohio: About 32% of 1,050 state mental hospital patients have been charged with crimes but declared unfit for trial. Most are accused felons, and that number has risen recently, says Howard Sokolov, Ohio's medical director for forensic services.

• California: Mentally incompetent defendants treated by state mental health providers increased in four of the past five years. Accused and convicted offenders now occupy 4,500 of the state's 5,000 mental hospital beds, up from 500 more than a decade ago, says the state Department of Mental Health.

Ken Murray, chairman of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' mental health committee, says competency claims are gaining acceptance among judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers in part because of growing efforts to identify the wrongfully convicted. "Some of these people who made false confessions" — and were convicted based on those statements — "had competence problems to start with," says Murray, a federal public defender in Phoenix.

Sokolov says incompetency caseloads for Ohio's mental health assessors have risen 22% in the past five years. "There is an increasing amount of people who are finding it difficult to obtain (mental health) services," he says, "and they tend to get in trouble with the law."

Contributing: Katharine Lackey

Florida's Crist will get chance to remake Supreme Court

Florida's Crist will get chance to remake Supreme Court
Scott Maxwell


May 28, 2008

A scary thing is about to happen.

Charlie Crist will soon have the chance to remake the Florida Supreme Court.

Not by appointing just one justice -- but four of the seven.

Two have recently announced their retirement. And two more will be forced out in the coming year because of age restrictions.

This is a big deal.

And based on appointments past, Crist has a mixed record.

There was, for instance, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a board supposedly devoted to protecting natural resources -- and to which Crist selected three developers, a construction-company exec and a land-use attorney. Quite the group of environmentalists.

Then there was the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, a board mired in politics, lobbying and fundraising -- and to which Crist appointed a lobbyist and fundraiser.

He has done better with the South Florida Water Management District and local boards elsewhere.

But really, all of these boards pale in comparison to the importance of the Supreme Court.

The supremes handle death-penalty cases. They can remove governors from office. They have been involved in everything from school vouchers and Terri Schiavo to redistricting and the 2000 presidential elections.

Even though a nominating commission is also involved in the appointment process, this is primarily Crist's deal. And it's a big one -- one that will leave a lasting mark.

So far, Crist has demonstrated a moderate streak as governor. And hopefully that will continue to be the case in these selections.

Too often we hear from extremists on both sides -- when most Americans sit somewhere in the middle.

Really, these positions should never be about politics. They should be about selecting wise jurists with an impeccable understanding of the Constitution and the role of the courts. (Those who complain of "activist judges" every time they see a ruling they dislike often don't understand what courts in this country are supposed to do.)

It's probably too much to expect Crist to approach this from a completely politics-free perspective. But he should certainly do so with sober contemplation, advice from sage counsel -- and something we haven't seen enough of lately: his undivided attention.

More tidbits, extra Cristy

*Charlie Crist may have spent Memorial Day weekend buttering up John McCain. But a new survey of Washington insiders suggests Crist wouldn't do much to help the Republican ticket. After surveying 81 GOP politicos, the National Journal reported that Mitt Romney was the running-mate of choice, favored by 32 percent of respondents. Crist won a mere 4 percent, placing him in a tie with Colin Powell -- and behind the likes of Joe Lieberman . . . who's not even a Republican.

*If Crist does get picked, you have to consider the real possibility that he could one day be prez, given McCain's age and all. And oh, the possibility that is! We would have the peppiest, most upbeat State of the Union addresses ever. Plus, I have to believe foreign relations would improve. (Just imagine Governor Feel-good's sit-downs! "Fidel, Kim Jung: I'd love to have you two guys over this weekend. And I swear we'll have oodles of fun. But first you have to promise to rein in the tyranny. Pretty please?") Also, given Charlie's buds, consider the possibility of these four words: Attorney General John Morgan.

Scott Maxwell, who'd expect causing a slip 'n' fall to be America's newest capital offense, can be reached at or 407-420-6141.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Judge: Teen Accused Of Killing Classmate Competent

Teen's Murder Trial Scheduled To Begin Immediately

POSTED: 10:55 am EDT May 27, 2008
UPDATED: 5:30 pm EDT May 27, 2008

MIAMI -- A Miami-Dade County judge has ruled that a teenager accused of killing a classmate is competent to stand trial.

Judge John Schlesinger's ruling, issued Tuesday afternoon, means the long-delayed murder trial of Michael Hernandez, 18, will begin immediately. Jury selection is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Hernandez is accused of stabbing Jamie Gough, 14, to death at Southwood Middle School in 2004. Gough was stabbed more than 40 times in a second-floor bathroom at the school.

Prosecutors said Hernandez methodically plotted the killing, even putting Gough's name on a hit list.

Defense attorneys had requested a last-minute evaluation of Hernandez's mental health and competency to stand trial, but two court-appointed lawyers testified in court Tuesday that while Hernandez does have mental health issues, he understands the accusations against him and can participate in his own defense.

"I have no concerns," said Vanessa Archer, one of the psychologists who evaluated Hernandez. "He is competent."

Hernandez spoke briefly in court, asked by the judge if he understood what was likely to happen next -- specifically, the selection of a jury.

"Yes, sir," said Hernandez.

Hernandez said he had rejected a prosecution offer of a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for a minimum of 50 years in exchange for a guilty plea. The judge asked Hernandez if he understood that the maximum penalty he faced was life in prison.

"You understand in Florida life means life," said the judge. "You come out of prison in a box."

"Yes, sir," said Hernandez.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lethal Injections Raise Defense Attorneys' Fears

Monday, May 26, 2008 2:00 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A call from death row inmate Terry Lyn Short interrupted a meeting in the office of his attorney, James Rowan.

Short wanted a promise that, after he is put to death next month, he won't end up in a pauper's grave in the cemetery that contains the bodies of many of those hanged, electrocuted and lethally injected at the 100-year-old Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Rowan told his 47-year-old client not to be concerned about that. "It's not going to cost you anything, so don't worry about it. That's the least of your worries," he said.

What worries Rowan and other defense attorneys is the possibility that an innocent man could be executed now that the nation's death-row machine is gearing up again following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection.

They point to past death sentences of men who were later exonerated, blaming ineffective lawyers, overzealous prosecutors and shoddy evidence.

"The answer is yes, it could happen," said Rowan, who has defended more than 40 capital cases.

Since 1973, 129 people have walked off death rows in 26 states after evidence proved they were wrongfully convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Florida leads all states with 22 exonerations, followed by 18 in Illinois. Oklahoma is one of five states that have each freed eight inmates from death row. One of the Oklahoma men, Ron Williamson, spent nine years on death row and came within five days of execution before he was set free by DNA evidence. The case formed the basis of John Grisham's best-selling "The Innocent Man."

Oklahoma's executioners have administered lethal injections to 86 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, trailing only Texas with 405 and Virginia with 98.

Nobody has ever been able to produce irrefutable proof that any innocent man was executed in recent U.S. history, but Oklahoma's execution of Malcolm Rent Johnson has troubled many death penalty opponents. He went to his execution proclaiming his innocence.

A star prosecution witness against Johnson, convicted of the 1981 rape and strangulation of an elderly woman, was police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, who was later fired amid allegations of shoddy forensic work and misleading testimony.

"There were serious questions about his case," said Vicki Werneke, chief of the capital post-conviction division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. "There was a lot of circumstantial evidence in that case, but he was executed in 2000, right before the whole issue with Joyce Gilchrist came to light."

Attempts to contact Gilchrist for comment were unsuccessful; there is no listed telephone number for her in Oklahoma City.

A current case that has raised questions is that of Paris Lapriest Powell, convicted in the 1993 shooting death of a 14-year-old in a gang-related, drive-by shooting in Oklahoma City.

Powell, then 19, and a co-defendant were convicted and sentenced to death based largely on the testimony of prosecution witness Derick Smith, a convicted drug dealer who has since recanted his testimony and said he lied.

A federal judge has ordered a new trial for Powell, now 34. The state has appealed the judge's ruling.

Powell, one of 83 condemned inmates in the "H-unit" of the state penitentiary, has always maintained his innocence.

"I've never really sat back and contemplated my last meal or anything like that. I've refused to accept that," Powell said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

He describes a sense of community on Oklahoma's death row, where inmates share a common goal of avoiding the nearby death chamber.

"You can't help but to think about it. You always know that it's there," Powell said.

"I don't prefer death at all, but if I have to die ... I'd choose old age."

Both Powell and Johnson were prosecuted by the office of Bob Macy, Oklahoma County's chief prosecutor for more than two decades.

Macy, now 78 and retired, oversaw an office that sent to death row 34 of the 86 inmates who have been executed in Oklahoma since executions resumed in 1990.

While Macy acknowledges that forensic science has advanced greatly in recent years and that appellate courts sometimes criticized his arguments, he said he never sought the death penalty unless he was convinced a defendant was guilty.

"I have always believed the death penalty is a deterrent, and it's one reason I sought the death penalty as often as I did," he said.

"We tried at least 60 capital murder cases, and I think we got the death penalty in 54 of them," he said in a telephone interview. "The only time you get the death penalty is when you have greatly cruel, sadistic-type crime."

Registered sex offender accused of raping 10-year-old relative

Man raped relative, police say

By Alexandra Zayas, Times Staff Writer

Published Sunday, May 25, 2008 11:12 PM


TAMPA — A registered sex offender, recently released from state prison, was arrested early Sunday, accused of a similar crime more grave than his last.

Tampa police say Byron James Simmons, 29, picked up a 10-year-old relative from her home at 10:30 p.m. Saturday. A report says he drove her to Copeland Park on N 15th Street, locked the doors to his van and raped her. He made her promise not to tell anyone. He threatened to hurt her if she did.

Simmons was arrested at 3:47 a.m. Sunday at a North Tampa apartment complex and charged with sexual battery on a child younger than 12, a capital felony. The alleged rape occurred exactly six months after Simmons was released from state prison for a sex offense.

Simmons, whose alias is "Cousin Bo," was convicted in 2003 of attempted lewd or lascivious molestation of a victim between 12 and 15 years old, as well as the sale and possession of cocaine. He was sentenced to five years in prison, with credit for time served, and was released Nov. 24, 2007.

At the time of the alleged crime Sunday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement sex offender database listed Simmons as released, or "no longer under Florida Department of Corrections confinement, supervision or any other court imposed sanction."

"There is no excuse to give someone no supervision when they come out," said Judy Cornett, executive director of Safety Zone Advocacy, Inc., which pushes for stricter sex offender restrictions. Cornett became an advocate after her son was raped.

Cornett researched this case as soon as she heard about it. She pushes for a "split sentence" for sex offenders, in which they serve part of their term in jail, and part on probation, undergoing surveillance and therapy. In this case, however, Simmons served all five years in prison, and was not sentenced to probation.

"They don't have control over these people when they're off supervision," she said.

In 1996, Simmons was sentenced to two years probation for carrying a concealed weapon and having a firearm at school. Hillsborough Circuit Court records show he violated that probation and was sentenced to 270 days in jail. Later convictions include assault, possession of cannabis, trespassing and battery.

Simmons, a resident of 3404 N 11th St., is being held in Orient Road Jail with no bail. If convicted, he could face life in prison, without parole.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Autopsy photos sealed in Lee murder

SARASOTA Crime scene photos of Denise Lee’s body will not be made public, a judge ruled Thursday.

Michael King, 36, appeared in the courtroom for the one-minute hearing in which Circuit Judge Deno Economou approved a defense attorney’s requests to shield the photos from the public as attorneys prepare for the case.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for King, who is charged with kidnapping, rape and murder.

Lee, 21, was reported missing from her North Port home on the afternoon of Jan. 17.

Her body was found two days later in a shallow grave six miles from her home.
A lab has matched King’s DNA to DNA found on Lee’s body, according to court documents filed by the prosecution.

Police briefs: Officials seek man who worked for slain widow

Manatee County sheriff's detectives investigating the killing of Janice Fore searched a home this week in the city as they tried to locate a person for an interview.

The detectives went to the one-time home of Wilbur Thomas, 52, whom Fore employed as a tree-cutter for many years. A neighbor of Fore told detectives she saw Thomas in Fore's neighborhood Tuesday evening.

Fore, 74, was last seen alive Tuesday about 11:30 p.m. A sheriff's deputy Wednesday evening found Fore dead in her home in the 1200 block of 67th Street Northwest. Authorities said she was not shot, stabbed or beaten but did not disclose how they believe she died.

Thomas has lived off and on at a house in the 1900 block of Fifth Avenue Drive East in Bradenton, just blocks from where Fore's Volkswagen convertible was abandoned.

Essie Craig, who lives at the home, told investigators she has not seen Thomas for several weeks. She said Thomas is not a violent person. One of Fore's neighbors said Thomas is a honest, hardworking man.

Thomas has a pending probation violation charge in a misdemeanor case from earlier this year. In January, Thomas talked about his cocaine addiction in a letter to a judge. Thomas said he wanted rehabilitation and did not want to return to jail.

Authorities are following up on leads and have not identified a suspect in the killing of Fore, a widow who lived alone and was well-liked.

Man, 21, indicted in robbery death

BRADENTON -- A grand jury Friday indicted a Bradenton man on a first-degree murder charge in the shooting death of a 59-year-old man last year in his home.

The alleged killer, William Henry Caldwell IV, 21, was arrested this month at the jail, where he was behind bars on an unrelated robbery charge.

Caldwell is accused in the shooting death of Robert Prater, 59, who was killed in his home in the 1300 block of 17th Street Court East during an apparent burglary. Police say Prater and the robbers exchanged gunfire.

Bradenton police said DNA, fingerprint evidence and witness statements led to the arrest of Caldwell, who is jailed with no set bail. Caldwell, authorities say, is one of three men who barged into the Prater home in a pre-dawn burglary in June. Police say they found Caldwell's DNA on a mask used by a robber.

Caldwell is on state probation until 2010 for a Hillsborough County grand theft conviction.

The state has not decided whether to pursue the death penalty against Caldwell, said Assistant State Attorney Art Brown, chief prosecutor in murder cases in Manatee.

Prosecutors dropped a murder charge against an 18-year-old Bradenton man who, police had said, participated in the robbery at the Prater house. A victim later said she misidentified the man. Police said another suspect in the shooting fatally shot himself after running from Bradenton police during a traffic stop.

Suspect's statement ruled inadmissible

BRADENTON -- A judge Friday found a statement made by accused shooter Orlando Valenzuela inadmissible at trial.

Authorities arrested Orlando Valenzuela, 16, on a murder charge in the shooting death of Stacy Williams III, 9. Stacy was fatally shot by a stray bullet just blocks from his home in May 2007.

Valenzuela's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Franklin Roberts, fought to have Valenzuela's statements to law enforcement thrown out. Valenzuela had asked to have his mother present during the interrogation.

Prosecutors brokered lenient plea deals for two teenagers who reportedly were in the car with Valenzuela at the time of the shooting. Ashley Rios and Johnny Vazquez, agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of Valenzuela.

The alleged shooter, who has pleaded not guilty, faces up to life in prison if he is convicted.

Judge Debra Johnes Riva on Friday issued a warrant for the arrest of a teenager identified in sheriff's reports as a witness in the homicide investigation. The judge found the boy had ignored court orders to show up for a deposition.

Boy struck by car while skating

BRADENTON -- A vehicle struck and seriously injured an 8-year-old Bradenton boy who was on roller skates in the 7300 block of Cortez Road West on Friday morning, the Florida Highway Patrol reported.

Hunter T. Williams and his brother, who was on a bicycle, were passing a driveway access road at the Shops of Paradise Bay.

A woman leaving the parking lot struck the bicycle, throwing William Williams, 11, off it. The car rolled over Hunter Williams' legs, according to FHP reports.

Troopers said the brothers were both wearing helmets.

Authorities said the car's driver, Virginia A. Cory, 80, of Bradenton, violated the right of way. Cory was not injured.

Williams was flown to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. His 11-year-old brother suffered minor injuries.

Arson suspected

in mobile home fire

BRADENTON -- Fire officials believe someone intentionally set fire to a mobile home in the 6900 block of Manatee Avenue West after breaking into the trailer.

Manatee County sheriff's deputies spotted the fire at the mobile home about 8 p.m. Thursday. The homeowner is staying in Ohio for the summer.

A neighbor who has been checking on the home did not notice anything suspicious this week. The doors were locked and the windows were secure.

Authorities reported someone broke windows at the trailer and stole a TV and DVD player.

Sheriff's deputies said the front door was found unlocked.

Compiled by staff writer Michael A. Scarcella.

Justice's resignation is second in six weeks

Crist choices for judges to remake court

By Brent Kallestad The Associated Press
May 24, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Justice Kenneth Bell on Friday became the Florida Supreme Court's second conservative member in six weeks to unexpectedly retire, giving Republican Gov. Charlie Crist a chance to reshape the seven-member court.

In a letter to Crist, Bell said he will return to his Pensacola hometown for family reasons. His resignation is effective Oct. 1. Bell, 52, has been on the court since January 2003.

Justice Raoul G. Cantero III of Miami also cited personal reasons for his departure, announced April 11.

Crist will have an opportunity to choose four justices in the next two years because two others, Charles Wells and Harry Lee Anstead, must resign in 2009 to comply with a constitutional requirement that judges retire when they turn 70.

"I think it's unprecedented that a governor would have the opportunity to appoint four justices, which would be a majority, within the scope of a year," Tallahassee attorney Stephen Grimes said. Grimes resumed his law career after retiring as a Supreme Court justice when he reached the age he calls "constitutional senility."

Crist will make his picks for each vacancy from three finalists recommended by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission from an initial pool of candidates.

Cantero and Bell were former Gov. Jeb Bush's only appointees and the court's most reliably conservative members. Bush and his predecessor, the late Lawton Chiles, agreed on the appointment of Peggy Quince, who will become chief justice July 1.

The two resigning justices cast the only dissenting votes in one of the most politically charged cases of their Supreme Court careers — a 2006 ruling that struck down Bush's voucher program that let students from failing public schools attend private schools at taxpayer expense.

As in the voucher case, Bell often was in the minority in split decisions, including several that reversed death sentences. He also opposed decisions barring expert witnesses from offering opinions based on consultation with other experts and allowing people to wear clothing with law enforcement insignia as long as it's done without an intent to deceive.

Bell was out of town Friday and not immediately available to answer questions. But he said in a statement released by the court that he was privileged to have served on the bench.

"Indeed, I wish I could continue to serve," he said before adding that "family responsibilities require that I return full-time to Pensacola."

Cantero, 47, and Bell were the youngest members of the Supreme Court and are likely to earn far more than their $161,200 salary in the private sector.

Bell was the 81st justice named to the high court when he was chosen to succeed Justice Leander Shaw. Bell was the first appointed justice from west of Tallahassee since 1917 and the only current justice who had served on the trial bench.

Crist, who was traveling Friday to Arizona to meet with presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, said in a statement that Bell would be remembered for his firm belief in the separation of powers and America's system of checks and balances.

"As a justice, he was always careful to respect the appropriate roles of the judicial, legislative and executive branches," Crist said.

Bell's most notable opinion came last year when he wrote that local governments must get voter approval to sell bonds backed by property taxes generated from redevelopment and improvement programs. The unanimous ruling overturned 27 years of legal precedent.

Within days, though, the Supreme Court agreed to reconsider and then clarified the ruling to say it applied only to future bond issues. The justices also excluded a type of financing widely used to pay for school construction.

In one dissent, Bell sided with two of the high court's liberal members. In the 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled people who plead no contest still have criminal records that can bring harsher punishment for future crimes. In dissent, Bell wrote that no contest doesn't mean "I confess."

Bell joins Cantero heading out Florida Supreme Court door

By Paul Flemming • Florida Capital Bureau • May 23, 2008

Justice Kenneth Bell will resign the Florida Supreme Court in October, giving Gov. Charlie Crist a second vacancy to fill on the seven-member court.

Bell, of Pensacola, said he will return there because of family reasons. Bell's decision comes after Justice Raoul Cantero April announcement that he would resign from the court.

“Serving the people of Florida as a justice,” said Bell, “has been the greatest privilege of my public life. Indeed, I wish I could continue to serve. However, similar to the reasons recently expressed by Justice Cantero in his resignation, my family responsibilities require that I return full-time to Pensacola.

Bell last year wrote the court's sweeping decision on financing for redevelopment districts. The unanimous ruling stemmed from an Escambia case and reversed a 27-year precedent that allowed local governments to issue tax-increment finance bonds without a public vote.

Bell, like Cantero, was appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. The 52-year-old justice joined the court in January 2003.

Bell graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Pensacola, then went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Davidson College in North Carolina. He earned his law degree from Florida State University.

Bell's private practice in Escambia County focused on real estate law.

For 12 years prior to his appointment to the state's highest court, Bell was a circuit court judge in Santa Rosa County.

Crist will make his picks to replace Bell and Cantero from at least three and as many as six names presented to him by the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission. Six of the commission's nine members will be Crist appointees by the time the two justices' vacancies come up.

Young Florida Couple Indicted

By Julie Morgan @ May 22, 2008 4:55 PM

A Florida couple caught in Texas a couple of weeks ago have been indicted in Putnam County on murder charges.

Morgan Leppert, 15, and her 22 year old boyfriend have been locked up in Putnam County without bond and now they have even bigger problems.

"Both Morgan Leppert and Toby Lowry have been indicted on 3 count indictments for first-degree murder, burglary with an assault and robbery with a weapon," says Assistant State Attorney Matthew Cline.

Cline says Leppert will be tried as an adult but they cannot seek the death penalty because of her age.

Lowry however can get death but officials have not made that decision.

Both are charged in the brutal death of James Stewart, 66. Stewart was a disabled.

Authorities believe the two killed him to take his vehicle.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Florida mom sentenced to 20 years in prison for keeping adopted son in cage

The Associated Press
Friday, May 23, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Florida: A mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for keeping her 17-year-old adopted son caged in her home.

Brenda Sullivan pleaded guilty in January to three counts of aggravated child abuse. Prosecutors agreed to drop lesser child neglect charges. She was sentenced Thursday.

The teen weighed 49 pounds (22 kilos) when child welfare workers found him in 2005 in what appeared to be a cage. Sullivan told a judge at the time that Ohio authorities told her to keep the boy, who had severe medical and emotional problems, in a crib.

"There's only one conclusion when you look at the medical evidence in this case, and that is that she literally starved him," prosecutor Julie Schlax said.

Two other children, 13-year-old twins the Sullivans adopted as infants, both testified they were kept in similar cages.

Sullivan's husband was also arrested, but died in January 2007 while awaiting trial.

Sullivan's lawyer, Charles Fletcher, said he didn't think prison was the right option because she does not pose a threat to society. He said they would appeal the sentence.

Court wants man to end his handwritten appeals

John Everett Pettway’s most recent handwritten appeal is one of at least 20 that he has filed.

'No' to handwritten appeals

By Jamal Thalji and Molly Moorhead, Times Staff Writers

Published Thursday, May 22, 2008 9:06 PM


It only takes a majority of the Florida Supreme Court to make or break state law. But the justices do, on occasion, come together to speak with one voice.

The state's highest court spoke in unison on Thursday, and this is what was said:

Enough already.

The Florida Supreme Court is sick and tired of prisoner John Everett Pettway's endless handwritten appeals — and it wants him to put a sock in it.

"Pettway's abusive pro se filings relating to his conviction and sentence must immediately come to an end," wrote Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis in the opinion released Thursday.

Pro se is Latin for "on one's own behalf." Pettway has been researching and writing his own legal filings from inside Raiford's Union Correctional Institution.

That's where Pettway, 61, is serving a life sentence for sneaking into an 11-year-old Zephyrhills girl's room and fondling her in 1992.

• • •

The other six justices joined Lewis in condemning Pettway and banning him from any more pro se filings.

There's no shortage of those in the Dade City man's court file. In 1993 Pettway was convicted of burglary and two counts of lewd and lascivious assault on a child.

His conviction and life sentence were upheld in 1994. Ever since, judges have ruled again and again that there's nothing illegal about either.

His case docket is a paean to his persistence. He has filed at least 20 motions for post-conviction relief. Though the courts have consistently denied them, Pettway has consistently filed more of them.

At one point the 2nd District Court of Appeal also told Pettway to stop filing.

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," said Stetson law professor Robert Batey. "Many inmates feel that they understand enough about the law to file these types of proceedings and they don't take no for an answer.

"So they find another way to present the same argument and eventually it offends the court."

• • •

In one of his latest appeals, filed in February in circuit court, Pettway argued that his conviction "is illegal which is not authorized by law."

Curiously, he used the article "an" ahead of the term "battery." He also misspelled judgment.

He has done some homework. The basis for that appeal is a 2007 case that he says establishes a new interpretation of the law — one that nullifies his conviction.

Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa didn't buy it. In a curt dismissal, he said the case doesn't apply.

Siracusa's order was dated March 13. Pettway filed another notice of appeal on March 24.

The chief justice wrote that these filings must be banned, or else "Pettway will continue filing nonmeritorious requests ."

State law allows the Department of Corrections to discipline inmates who make "frivolous or malicious filings."

• • •

Under federal and state law the right to access the courts is a fundamental one. But the Florida Supreme Court said it is not violating that right.

The justices told Pettway that from now on, he needs to get a lawyer to sign on to a pleading that has "merit" and is "filed in good faith."

Once, Batey said, he had strong feelings about such a ban.

"When I first heard of this I was offended by (what) seems a fundamental violation of the rights of due process," he said. "But I do understand the anger and frustration that not only judges but also court officials and clerks have when these individuals repeatedly … take up their time and clog up their filing cabinets."

But Batey said such bans are not uncommon.

"I'm worried that the Florida courts are too quick these days to bar people from filing."

The Florida Supreme Court's opinion said that frivolous filings infringe on the rights of others. It keeps legitimate cases from being heard faster. It taxes the court's "finite resources."

Nor are all jailhouse lawyers created equal.

"You have prisoners who have very little else to do," Batey said. "For some of them it's almost a form of recreation."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at or (727) 869-6236.

Inmate's death tests new system

Sanita Capozziello died Sunday while serving a 45-day sentence at the Marion County Jail.


Published: Friday, April 18, 2008 at 6:30 a.m.

OCALA - When Sanita Capozziello died Sunday night after being found unresponsive in the Marion County Jail infirmary, she became the first death under the watch of Ocala Community Care. For Marion County Sheriff Ed Dean, her death was one too many.

Still, Dean defended the jail's health-care service Thursday while denying accusations of negligence made by Capozziello's family.

"It's my goal, and it's Ocala Community Care's goal, that no one dies in the jail," Dean said. "The question is, was Mrs. Capozziello treated well and properly when she was here, and the answer is yes."

Dean said that after reviewing Capozziello's four days in the jail, he found no violations of any procedures. Capozziello was to serve 45 days in jail after pleading guilty to a repeat violation of retail petty theft on April 10.

Loretta Rich, the medical liaison between the Sheriff's Office and OCC, said that Capozziello was placed immediately in the jail's infirmary after an initial screening. Dean added that she was also put on suicide watch.

Sheriff officials also arranged that Friday to transport Capozziello, 69, to Shands at the University of Florida three times a week.

"She was a special-needs elderly female," Dean said, "and we wanted to make sure she received excellent care."

Capozziello spent her last days in an infirmary cell with a glass front about 10 feet from and in direct sight of the nurse's station. OCC nurses checked on her every 30 minutes.

Sheriff's Detective Donald Buie said Monday that when Capozziello was checked at 6 p.m. Sunday, she was fine. At 6:30 p.m., she was not breathing. An autopsy revealed that she died of natural causes associated with hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

"She was on a half-hour check, which shows the level of attention all our infirmary inmates get," Dean said. "I have the highest level of confidence in the OCC's delivery of health care in our jail."

Dean said that OCC, which took over health care operations at the jail in January, has been viewed as a model for the rest of the country. He recently spoke at a summit in Washington, D.C., about utilizing and collaborating with many health-care officials within Marion County to create OCC. The new system was implemented after two years of using a private contractor to handle medical services at the jail.

"The law states that we provide the community standard of care," Dean said. "I believe we have gone above and beyond that."

The infirmary at the Marion County Jail features about 20 individual cells, all with a front glass wall so nurses, doctors and correctional officers can look in on inmates inside. Across the hall, a dentist office and two examining rooms fill up with inmates for most of the day.

OCC nursing practitioner Nora Grenia said she sees about 20 patients a day, while the doctor on duty sees about 10.

"We can treat anything from broken toes to pneumonia," she said. "That's what we're trained to do."

Joe VanHoose may be reached at or at 352-867-4124.

Death Penalty Recommended for Orlando-area Man

SANFORD, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35, Orlando) -- Following a 10-2 vote in an advisory verdict, jurors recommended the death penalty for a Vietnamese immigrant convicted of stabbing his estranged wife to death in October of 2005.

Tai Pham, 35, of Sanford was convicted of first-degree murder in March of this year. Prosecutors say Pham when to Phi Ai "Amy Pham's Altamonte Springs apartment, waited for her to return with her new boyfriend then went after them with a knife.

She was killed in front of her 13-year-old daughter. Tai Pham held the daughter hostage as he planned the killing.

Defense attorneys argued that Tai Pham had suffered from depression and a difficult life after spending his childhood as a refugee following the Vietnam War.

Circuit Judge Marlene Alva will make the final decision on what sentence to hand down.

Ex-guard sentenced for sex with inmate

(AP) -- A former corrections officer at the Coleman federal prison in Central Florida has been sentenced for engaging in a sexual act with a female inmate while he worked as a guard.

William Alan Blanton was sentenced Thursday to three years of probation and one year of supervised release.

The judge imposed the first eight months as home detention and ordered Blanton to abandon any effort to litigate against the U.S. government over his terminated employment.

He was facing six to 12 months in prison for a misdemeanor count of engaging in a sex act with a person under peripheral supervision.

Blanton is one of nine employees who -- along with one guard's girlfriend and one inmate -- were arrested as the result of a two-year investigation into smuggling and other misconduct at the complex.

Man pleads guilty, will testify in homeless beating death

AP Legal Affairs Writer

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - One of the three men accused of fatally beating a homeless man as he slept on a park bench pleaded guilty Friday and agreed to testify against the others.

William Ammons, 20, could have gotten a life prison sentence if convicted at trial of first degree murder. But under an agreement with prosecutors, Ammons pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and aggravated battery and will face between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Police said Ammons and two others fatally beat 45-year-old Norris Gaynor during a violent spree in which two other homeless men were also attacked but survived. One of those Jan. 12, 2006 attacks with baseball bats was captured on surveillance video and broadcast around the world - a clip that also led police to the suspects.

Ammons confessed his role in the attacks in a videotaped statement to police, a confession his lawyer sought unsuccessfully to have thrown out. In the Gaynor attack, prosecutors said Ammons fired pellets from a paintball gun but did not inflict fatal injuries.

Broward County Circuit Judge Cynthia Imperato set Ammons' sentencing for Aug. 20. No trial date has been set for co-defendants Brian Hooks, 20, and Thomas Daugherty, 19, both of whom have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.

Imperato has imposed a gag order on prosecutors and defense lawyers, preventing them from commenting about the case to reporters.

Prosecutors previously ruled out the death penalty for any of the three because Daugherty was 17 at the time of the attacks. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people under age 18 cannot be executed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

U.S. Supreme Court Clears Way for Florida Execution

TALLAHASSEE, FL (AP) -- Florida can go forward with the execution of child killer Mark Dean Schwab.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday lifted a stay of execution for Schwab, who was given a reprieve while the justices considered the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures. The court a month ago upheld the use of lethal injection in a Kentucky case.

The move Monday frees Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to set a new date of execution for Schwab.

Crist was traveling Monday and his office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Schwab was supposed to be executed in November for raping and murdering 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez in 1991.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Arson suspect held in Florida wildfire case

Sarah Lundy

Sentinel Staff Writer

1:09 PM EDT, May 14, 2008

Palm Bay police hope to question a suspect they believe may be connected to at least one of the wildfire arsons in Brevard County.

Brian Crowder, 31, of Palm Bay was taken into custody this morning after he fled from officers.

The incident began around 4:20 a.m. when a resident near El Dorado Avenue and Jupiter Boulevard called police after seeing a man in a dark colored vehicle -- with distinctive stickers on it - throw something from his window into the woods.

Moments later the dried out plants erupted in flames, Palm Bay Police Chief Bill Berger said during a 10 a.m. press conference. (See photos from the press conference and of the brushfires in Brevard.)

Firefighters responded immediately and doused the 10-foot by 10-foot burning area with water, while police officers searched for the man in the car.

The fire was out within moments and police officers now had confirmation that their suspicions were true - an arsonist was on the loose. In the burned out foliage, investigators found a glass bottle that had once been full of flammable liquid. The item that a witness allegedly saw the man throw from his car.

An officer found the dark-colored vehicle and attempted to stop it. The driver bailed and fled. Police located the car's owner who told authorities that he had lent the vehicle to Crowder. By 7 a.m. officers spotted Crowder near the 500 block of Breakwater Street, Berger said.

About 60 police officers descended on the wooded area, the police helicopter was soon circling and the K-9 unit began tracking Crowder. The dogs found him and helped bring him into custody after an hour and a half search.

Crowder was bitten a couple of times on his legs by the dogs and suffered a minor injury on his face, Berger said. Crowder was taken to Palm Bay Community Hospital for treatment before authorities are able to interview him.

"Now the hard work begins," Berger said. "In CSI it's 43 minutes and the hard work is over," not exactly the reality Palm Bay investigators are tasked with completing.

Officials did not indicate whether they are searching for any other suspects in the other fires, but said Crowder is the suspect in this morning's fire.

This is not Crowder's first time in trouble.

In 2002, he was sentenced to five years in prison for grand theft of a motor vehicle and burglary. He was released in August 2005 and returned to Palm Bay on probation. In September, he failed a drug test and violated his probation. He was arrested and later released from jail. The next month he failed to report to his probation officer.

A warrant for his arrest was issued on Nov. 1, according to Department of Corrections.

Gov. Charlie Crist heard about Crowder while at the Governor's Hurricane Conference in Fort Lauderdale this morning.

"It's unconscionable to me that someone would want to intentionally put our fellow Floridians in harm's way by lighting a fire," he said. "It's outrageous. It's just hard to comprehend."

Crist praised the "aggressive pursuit of law enforcement" and hopes that the suspect or anyone else would do such thing is "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That's why we have jails."

He further asked the almost 20 million Floridians to keep their eyes open for anyone else might try to set blazes during this dry season.

"If they see anything that looks suspect, they should let local law enforcement know," he said.

Inmates say prison food made them sick

By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer

Published Monday, May 12, 2008 8:51 PM


TALLAHASSEE — Florida's prison system had already fined its food provider $241,000 this year over staffing and supply issues. And then 277 inmates said they became sick last month after eating chili.

The April 25 incident at a Panhandle prison has raised the latest question into the performance of Aramark Corp., which took over prison food service in 2001 as part of former Gov. Jeb Bush's privatization push.

"I think in the past we probably didn't manage the contract as closely as we should have," said Richard Prudom, chief of staff for the Florida Department of Corrections, on Monday. "I think they are just taking a little time catching up. But these fines mean we're serious."

The latest incident happened at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. Prisoners complained of diarrhea and upset stomachs. The problems did not persist, and health officials have not determined whether the chili was the cause.

But the situation has added to ongoing trouble for Aramark, a powerful Philadelphia company that has been at the forefront of outsourcing efforts nationwide.

The corporation, which provided the food for the 2000 Republican National Convention and is a major GOP campaign contributor, has faced a wave of bad news recently, including a statewide probe in Connecticut about poor quality and service in public schools.

Already this year, Florida has fined Aramark $241,499 for slow meal delivery, insufficient staffing and other contract violations, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.

The company is challenging some of the fines.

That is more fines than the state has collected from Aramark in the previous seven years combined.

Some of the heftiest fines were levied this month after quarterly audits showed Aramark was not keeping enough food on hand to serve 100 percent of the prison population.

In an environment with few luxuries or freedoms, the availability of food is a paramount concern, officials say.

"If you mess with someone's food, there's likely going to be inmate unrest," Prudom said, adding the state has increased its quality standards and is paying closer attention to the contract.

Aramark spokeswoman Sarah Jarvis said the company is cooperating with the investigation into the April 25 sickness.

"Over the course of the contract, these types of issues come up and we … immediately correct any that are found to be valid," Jarvis said.

Aramark landed the state contract in 2001 and is currently paid $2.67 per inmate for three meals a day. It serves about 60,000 inmates across Florida and contends it has saved the state $100-million in food costs.

The contract was put out to bid last year, and another company, Oldsmar's Trinity Services Group, won about a third of the state business. Under the new terms, Aramark was required to add new, costlier food items, including French toast and squash. It also had to increase its staff.

Food fiasco costs inmates, taxpayers

Published Wednesday, May 14, 2008 6:33 PM


As the Florida Department of Corrections finally begins to levy some serious fines against prison food contractor Aramark Corp., sick inmates aren't the only ones who need some answers. Taxpayers may well be getting the short end of this deal, and Gov. Charlie Crist needs to keep asking questions.

The Aramark contract, signed seven years ago by Gov. Jeb Bush, has been subject to so little scrutiny the department's own inspector general wrote last year that "most documents related to food service performance prior to 2004 (have) been purged from department files." The inspector general's report, released eight days after Crist was inaugurated, found that Aramark had pocketed a $10.5-million windfall by charging for meals it never served and by substituting cheaper ingredients without approval.

"Even if Aramark's original cost proposal was based on a break-even operating margin," the report stated, "FY 2005-06 compensation of $71-million was an excessive amount to pay for the reduced quality and percentage quantity of meals that the department received."

To its credit, the department now is beginning to do something about it. Aramark has been fined $241,499 this year, more than the previous six years combined. Department officials are also raising questions about a chili meal served April 25 at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton. Some 277 inmates reported diarrhea and nausea following the meal.

The concern here goes well beyond upset stomachs. Food plays a significant role in prison security. Experienced prison guards know that inmates who are not adequately fed can and do strike out at their captors. Fights can break out from the slightest change in cafeteria procedures.

Given the connection between Aramark and Republican political causes, questions about the contract were raised from the very start. Bush's first privatization czar quit the job when she found out that the governor was interested less in saving tax money than he was in transferring government services to private companies.

The department's "Cost-Value Analysis" last year, in fact, raises serious questions about whether Aramark ever saved taxpayers money. The original bid was never compared to the department's direct costs, and the company then took shortcuts. As more and more inmates stopped eating Aramark meals, the company charged as though it was still serving them. Then it began serving ground turkey instead of ground beef, at a savings of 57 cents a pound. In other words, it was cutting corners and still charging taxpayers top dollar.

The state auditor general's office is now conducting its own investigation, and Crist should be eager to hear the results. The department projected in 2006 that it could rehire staff and serve 5 percent more meals, at greater quality, for $7-million less than Aramark charged. If that estimate is even close to being accurate, he will want to end this privatization fiasco.

A Guilty Plea In The Sean Taylor Case

Venjah Hunte (L) and Charles Wardlow (C) are seen via closed circuit television at the Lee County Justice Center in Fort Myers, Florida, December 1, 2007. Hunte, one of five defendants charged with the death of Washington Redskins NFL footballer Sean Taylor, faces a 29-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to second degree murder and armed burglary.

Venjah Hunte pleaded guilty to second degree murder and burglary charges for his role in the killing of Redskins star safety Sean Taylor and was handed a 29-year sentence, the first in what Taylor's family hopes will be a series on long sentences. Hunte was one of five men charged with first-degree murder in the case and he was accused driver of the car used to get to and from Taylor's home; Hunte agreed to testify against the others as part of the deal, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

Richard Sharpstein, a Florida lawyer and Taylor family spokesperson, said the family worked closely with the state attorneys office during the plea process and believed the sentence - though not the life without parole being sought for all involved in the case - was sufficiently stern. Taylor's father, Pedro (called Pete by his friends), is a longtime police chief of Florida City, Florida.

"It appears on the surface that he's gotten a deal," Sharpstein said, "but he still serves at least 80 percent of the 29 years, which is a long stretch. It's no slap on the wrist. It's severe punishment and Pete and other family members were consulted and they approved the prosecutor's decision.

"Pete certainly understands the help that inside information gives to a case, and prosecutors always tend to look toward the lesser culpable people to solidify their case and have someone testifying from the inside. This is serve punishment, and with the others the family hopes each one as it goes along faces the most severe, harshest punishment they can receive."

A fifth suspect, Timothy Brown, 16, was charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary on Wednesday. Prosecutors recently waived their attempts to pursue the death penalty in this case citing restrictions regarding the age of the accused.

Jason Mitchell, Eric Rivera, Charles Wardlow are also charged in the case and trial is set for Aug. 25. Several defendants have been seeking plea deals, according to a source, but Hunte's 29-year sentence, given that he was not accused of entering the home, could become a baseline for the low-end of the sentencing structure.

'Backlog' death-penalty rationale fatally flawed

By Cara H. Drinan
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/16/08

On April 16, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection. Before the ink on the court's opinion was dry, officials in Virginia, Texas, Florida and Oklahoma set in motion plans to execute inmates whose deaths had been on hold.

Three weeks later, Georgia became the first state in the nation to resume use of the death penalty when it executed William Earl Lynd —- part of what a spokesman for the Georgia attorney general's office called an attempt to clear "the backlog."

In light of the recent release and exoneration of death row inmates in North Carolina and Texas, the sense of urgency driving these states is both perplexing and troubling —- and in the case of Georgia, whose indigent defense system is collapsing, it's downright embarrassing. Officials in these states should be focused not on clearing execution backlogs but on whether their death row inmates received effective assistance of counsel.

In the wake of several lawsuits, in 2003 Georgia created its statewide indigent defense system, which was lauded at the time as an example of the type of system the American Bar Association recommends. But only five years after its creation, the fledgling system is a shambles. A 2006 ABA report found Georgia's capital defense services so flawed that the organization called for a moratorium on executions and capital prosecutions until the state could study and remedy those defects. Two years later, those flaws, including inadequate funding and failure to provide counsel for post-conviction appeals, not only remain but are metastasizing. The now-infamous case of Brian Nichols (who killed a judge, a court reporter and two law enforcement officers while being retried for rape in 2005) has cost taxpayers $2 million in defense costs alone, and the trial has not even begun. Moreover, the judge initially presiding over the Nichols trial was threatened with impeachment for unpopular pro-defendant funding decisions.

Despite his resignation for other reasons, the incident exposed a lack of judicial independence in Georgia and what Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights called a threat to "the rule of law."

Other indigent defendants in Georgia have paid a heavy price for what the state has devoted to the Nichols trial. In 2007, the statewide defender system was forced to seek an emergency appropriation from the Legislature to remain operational; capital trials were put on hold; and capital defenders began to flee the system in the face of reduced compensation and excessive case-loads.

In short, as Carmen Hernandez of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said, "Georgia has refused to fund its system and, as a result, Georgia's system is once again broken. . . . It has gone from leading light to disgrace in a few short years."

It is ironic that Georgia won the race to resume executions, but the state is certainly not alone in its indigent defense funding crisis. In the last year, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and Utah have all experienced attorney shortages as a result of their inability to fund capital-defense services adequately.

Elected officials in states that allow capital punishment must accept the fact that these funding crises are not a short-term phenomenon. Recent Supreme Court case law has only bolstered a capital defendant's right to special safeguards at trial, and as a result of these safeguards, capital cases cost anywhere from 40 percent to 70 percent more than nondeath cases.

There is only one meaningful way for these states to contain the costs of indigent defense in the long run: to replace the death penalty with life without parole, as New Jersey has recently done. Before abolishing its death penalty, New Jersey conducted an exhaustive study of the costs and benefits of keeping execution on the books. By doing so, legislators were able to satisfy their constituents that the death penalty simply was not worth its prohibitive price tag.

Georgia and the other states that are expeditiously trying to clear their death row calendars could learn a lot from the elected officials in New Jersey. Rather than acting in haste, lawmakers in these states should call for a moratorium on the death penalty so that its costs and benefits can be evaluated in a circumspect manner.

Cara H. Drinan is an assistant professor of law at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

Barwick's killer doesn't want a jury to help decide sentence

Decision will be left up to the judge alone

By Suevon Lee


Published: Friday, May 16, 2008 at 6:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 16, 2008 at 7:34 p.m.

OCALA — Andrew Allred has waived his right to a jury, so only a judge will decide his punishment for the murders of Tiffany Barwick and Michael Ruschak.

The jurors' seats won't be the only ones left vacant: Allred doesn't want to attend the penalty phase, where the state and defense will argue whether he deserves the death penalty or life in prison.

Allred pleaded guilty earlier this month to two counts of first-degree murder. He didn't want a trial. But a penalty phase is still necessary.

During a Thursday hearing in a Seminole County courtroom attended by two prosecutors, the defendant and his lawyer, and several of Ruschak's relatives, Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton, Jr. granted both of Allred's requests, according to court records.

Both prosecutors — Stewart Stone and Kyan Ware — and Allred's attorney, Timothy Caudill, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Allred was arrested on Sept. 24, 2007, the night he shot and killed Ruschak, 22, and Barwick, 19, an Ocala native who was Allred's former girlfriend.

According to police reports, Allred, now 21, broke into Ruschak's rented home in Oviedo that evening, shot Ruschak four times in the chest and back, then shot Barwick, whom he found hiding in the bathroom while on the phone with a 911 operator.

He shot her at least seven times in the chest, wrist and legs, authorities said. Allred also shot Ruschak's roommate, Eric Roberts, in the leg when Roberts tried to stop the rampage.

Allred used a gun he had purchased shortly after his breakup with Barwick, records showed.

Allred was suspicious of the relationship between Ruschak and Barwick, a graduate of West Port High School. Authorities said that in the days leading up to the murders, the defendant hacked into his ex-girlfriend's bank account and online social networking sites, where he sent offensive messages pretending to be Barwick.

Although Barwick expressed her concerns about Allred to a Seminole County sheriff's deputy the day she died, the law prevented authorities from making an arrest.

The day Allred pleaded guilty, the Florida Senate unanimously approved the Barwick-Ruschak bill, which would broaden state law to afford victims of dating violence the same protections as those of domestic violence. Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign the bill into law.

The penalty phase is like a trial, except the only question is what punishment — life in prison or the death penalty — the defendant deserves.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers can call witnesses, present evidence and argue about the aggravating and mitigating factors of the case.

A jury typically hears all this and then makes a sentencing recommendation. Under Florida law in capital cases, a judge must take into consideration a jury's recommended sentence, but does not have to abide by it.

According to George "Bob" Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida and a former prosecutor in Lake City, one reason Allred might want to waive a jury during his penalty phase is to avoid jury bias.

"If there is a tremendous amount of pretrial publicity, [defendants] may feel that a judge would be less likely to be influenced by pretrial publicity than a jury," he said.

As to Allred's request to not be present in court, Dekle said it could be one avenue to set Allred's case up for a possible appeal.

"Some people want to trick the system and see if they could have something happen [in circuit court] that the appeals court won't like," he said.

Court records from Thursday's hearing show, however, that Eaton ruled that Allred would need to be held "close by," so that his defense attorney could consult with him.

During a pre-trial hearing July 17, the judge will set the date of the penalty phase.

Suevon Lee can be reached at or 867-4065

Problems mount for Broward public defender candidate


Gary Ostrow's candidacy to become Broward's new public defender has gotten off to a bumpy start and now faces a new legal hurdle.
A former client's family is suing Ostrow for allegedly lying about his qualifications to represent their son in a Miami-Dade County death penalty case.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after Ostrow was arrested on cocaine possession charges in Tallahassee, which he received while filing to run against incumbent public defender Howard Finkelstein.

The Perez family claims they paid Ostrow $57,000 to defend their son, Mario Perez, in a death penalty case, even though he was not state-certified to handle such cases.

He told the family he was qualified, the lawsuit alleges.

Ostrow ''knew that these representations were false and they were intentionally made to induce'' the Perez family to hire him, states the lawsuit, which was filed in Broward County Circuit Court earlier this week.

Ostrow said the family is trying to take advantage of the negative publicity he received because of his drug arrest.

'It's a `kick me while I am down' routine. It's absolute crap,'' he said. ``I went out of my way and above and beyond for this kid. The court found me qualified and I was qualified from the beginning.''

The Florida Supreme Court's guidelines require attorneys in death penalty cases to have at least handled two death penalty cases through to the verdict and have a certain amount of experience in capital crime cases.

Ostrow said the rule was meant to apply to public defenders who work death penalty cases, not private attorneys.

''Anybody has a right to the council of their choice,'' he said.

The lawsuit also claims Ostrow illegally broke the business agreement, defrauded the family, and failed to provide receipts for his work.

The family, which lives in Hollywood, is seeking an undetermined amount in damages.

''They feel he lied to them,'' said Wayne Koppel, the attorney representing the family. ``These people trusted him so they kept paying him because they were trying to keep their son off Death Row. He took advantage of them.''

Miami-Dade prosecutors and Circuit Judge Rosa Rodriguez also appeared concerned about Ostrow's qualifications, according to court documents.

Ostrow was hired by the family in January 2007 after Perez, 20, was arrested in connection with the shooting death of a man at a Hialeah gas station the month before.

Ostrow, who has practiced law for 26 years, agreed to take the case for $100,000.

The Miami-Dade state attorney's office did not initially file a motion to seek the death penalty, but in April, prosecutors said that if convicted, they would seek the death penalty.

That's when Perez's family first heard that Ostrow might not be qualified to defend their son, said Oscar Perez, Mario's brother-in-law.

''We were all surprised. He used to always tell us he was overqualified,'' he said. ``He kept asking for money and asking for money. It was pretty frustrating to hear the judge say he wasn't qualified for the case.''

Assistant State Prosecutor Audrey Frank-Aponte filed several motions asking Rodriguez to investigate Ostrow's qualifications to represent Perez.

Rodriguez required Ostrow to show proof he had worked on death penalty cases before.

There was no record of him working on such a case in Broward or Miami-Dade.

Still, Ostrow continued to work on the case.

Between May and October, Ostrow asked the family for at least $30,000 for work he was doing on the case, Oscar Perez said.

''I met with the family for untold hours,'' Ostrow said. ``I can't tell you how much time was spent with the family, let alone fighting with the state to stop the death penalty.''

At the very least, a private investigator should have been hired and other, more crucial witnesses should have been interviewed in 11 months, said Russell Williams, one of the attorneys now working the Perez case.

Ostrow said he was never formally fired by the family. He was cleared to handle death penalty cases in November, around the same time the family hired new attorneys.

''I don't see anything near $57,000 worth of work,'' Williams said ``There are things we still have to request from the state that he should have done. As far as I can tell, the family got knocked off by an attorney for almost a year who did nothing.''

The family tried to get some of the money -- about $45,000 -- back from Ostrow, but was rebuffed repeatedly.

It wasn't until published reports of Ostrow saying he would pledge $200,000 of his own money to fuel his election campaign that the family decided to sue.

The family collected money from several relatives and refinanced their house to pay Ostrow, Koppel said.

''This is a blue-collar family that pooled their money to try to save a family member,'' he said. ``And Ostrow took advantage of it.''

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Supreme Court should forbid cruel punishment

May 14th, 2008
Supreme Court should forbid cruel punishment

Marc Morial

The U.S. Supreme Court recently granted a stay of execution to an Alabama prisoner while it determines whether the procedure of lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling came a month after the hearing of arguments in a case filed in Kentucky on behalf of death row inmates Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling that since September has put a de facto moratorium on all executions by lethal injection.

The case harkens back to 2006 when Clarence Edward Hill, an African-America convicted of murdering a police officer in Pensacola, Fla., challenged Florida’s lethal injection procedure. On death row from 1983 until 2006, Hill was originally sentenced to death by electrocution, but a state law changed it to lethal injection in 2000. But he wasn’t having anything to do with it.

In a sense, Hill became the poster child against lethal injection, the most popular form of execution in the United States. Used by nearly all states with death penalties, the procedure requires the use of three different chemicals in sequence – 1) an anesthetic to numb the body; 2) a chemical to paralyze muscles and stop breathing; and 3) a chemical to stop the heartbeat. Improper administration of the anesthetic could result in a very painful experience, one you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies.

In a 2006 editorial, headlined, "Lethal Cruelty," the New York Times concluded that when poorly administered, lethal injection, considered by some to be more humane than the electric chair, "can in fact be particularly barbaric."

Earlier that year - on January 24, 2006 - Hill was just minutes away from the other side, strapped down to a gurney and hooked up to intravenous tubes awaiting his fate. He got a last-minute stay, courtesy of the Supreme Court.

And while the nation’s high court didn’t rule on whether use of the three chemicals was unconstitutional, the justices did agree unanimously that Hill had the right to make a claim against the state’s method. In June of 2006, the court kicked the lawsuit back to the lower courts, who unfortunately ruled against Hill, contending that he didn’t file his claim early enough. An appeal went all the way back to the Supreme Court, which denied a second stay. On September 20, 2006, Hill was put to death using the method he fought so hard against.

"The idea of a ‘humane execution’ is a contradiction in terms," observed Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, last month after oral arguments in the Kentucky case. "But if states are going to put people to death, they must choose the drugs and methods that carry the least risk of pain and suffering for the condemned."

Because lethal injection appears to be a medical procedure, it is a method of execution is perceived to be humane. When it is administered properly, it is humane. But when it’s not administered properly, it most certainly is not.

The National Urban League has always opposed the death penalty because it tends to disproportionately affect blacks, who are less able to afford adequate representation when accused of running afoul with the law. From 1976 to 2007, over one-third of executed death row inmates were black.

In 2006, according to Amnesty International, the United States ranked sixth in the world in terms of execution count - behind China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. That’s very interesting company to keep, especially for a nation that prides itself in being the world’s greatest democracy and beacon of freedom. If our nation is going to legalize an act as inhumane as execution, we, at the very least, owe it to the condemned to make it as humane as possible.

Justice Harry Blackmun, once famously proclaimed that "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." The National Urban League agrees, especially if it entails senseless suffering. That is why we very strongly urge the justices to see it Blackmun’s way later this year when a final ruling comes down. We are supposed to be a nation of civilized, concerned and humane citizens not a nation of savages.

Fifth Person Is Charged In Taylor Case

Thursday, May 15, 2008; E02

A fifth person has been charged in connection with the shooting death of Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor, a spokesman in the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office said yesterday.

Timothy Brown, 16, of Fort Myers, Fla., has been charged with first-degree felony murder and armed burglary of an occupied dwelling, according to Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the state attorney's office. Brown was arrested Tuesday and booked into a Lee County jail. It is unclear when he will arrive in Miami. No initial court appearance has yet been set.

Taylor, 24, died Nov. 27 after surprising intruders in his home the night before.

Four other men -- Eric Rivera Jr., 18; Charles Kendrick Lee Wardlow, 19; Jason Scott Mitchell, 20; and Venjah K. Hunte, 20 -- were indicted by a Miami-Dade County grand jury last year on the same charges and are scheduled to go to trial Aug. 25. All four were arrested within days of Taylor's death.

In a sworn statement to the police, one of the defendants, Rivera, said that five people, not four, drove together from Fort Myers to Taylor's house near Miami on the night of the break-in.

After returning to Fort Myers, "all five of us" burned "clothes and shirts and gloves" so "nobody can find out who did it," Rivera told police, according to his signed statement dated Nov. 30.

"It's always been the belief of the police that there were one or more other suspects involved," said Richard Sharpstein, the attorney representing Taylor's family. "The family is thankful that the police have been dogged in their pursuit of all the individuals so that all the individuals responsible for Sean's death can all meet hard justice."

Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty, Griffith said. Rivera, the alleged gunman in the case, was 17 at the time of Taylor's death. Under Florida law, juveniles cannot face the death penalty.

-- Amy Shipley and Jason La Canfora