By BRAD DICKERSON
Death penalty cases, by their very nature, are significantly different court proceedings than, say, a drug trafficking case.
For one, defense attorneys have to meet a certain set of qualifications, according to Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin.
"They have to have certain training and a certain amount of experience," he said. "No such requirements for the prosecutors. The judges also have to have special training and certification to hear death penalty cases."
Houchin certainly has his hands full with these, having filed notices of intent to seek the death penalty in six first-degree murder cases in Highlands County.
The first to go to trial is the case of Joshua Lee Altersberger, 20, who is accused of shooting to death Sgt. Nicholas Sottile with the Florida Highway Patrol during a Jan. 12, 2007 traffic stop in Highlands County. A status jury trial is scheduled for March 6, with the jury trial set to begin March 16.
Before that, death penalty motions will be heard in Altersberger's case Dec. 19 in Bartow in front of Judge Michael J. Hunter.
"If we file the notice, if it begins to get close to time for trial, the defense will file a series of motions attacking the constitutionality of the death penalty," Houchin said.
Other Death Penalty Cases
Besides Altersberger, Houchin has filed a notice of intent seeking death for five other defendants.
Joseph Paul Graham, 19, is charged in connection with the Nov. 24, 2007 shooting death of Samuel Tiller, 82, who was killed in his house while the defendant and two others were allegedly in the process of burglarizing it.
Both Brandon Johns, 29, and Terrance Barnett, 27, are accused of binding Bryan Edward "Red" Fanning inside his home and then burning it on Aug. 22, 2007.
Thirdly, Donald Henry, 37, faces accusations that he shot to death Hugh Andrew Marks, who was found Jan. 7 near the intersection of Garrett Road and Alabama Avenue in Avon Park.
Finally, Andrew Kalinowski, 21, is charged with shooting both Walter Enrique Vilchez and Jose Franklin Escalante, with the former dying as a result of his injuries.
The Time To Seek Death
When it comes to seeking the death penalty, Houchin said Florida statute requires that, on top of it being a first-degree murder case, certain aggravating circumstances must exist.
"There's about a dozen aggravating circumstances that you can consider above and beyond the fact it's a first-degree murder (case), such as heinous, atrocious and cruel, in other words, unnecessary suffering like you might have in the Bryan Fanning case," Houchin said. "The fact that the victim's a law enforcement officer is one of them."
Other aggravating circumstances include the capital felony being committed while the defendant was in the commission of another crime, like burglary, or the crime being a homicide that was committed in a "cold, calculated and premeditated manner," according to state statutes.
"The law is simply that the aggravating circumstances must outweigh any mitigating circumstances," Houchin said. "It's a balancing act."
Mitigating circumstances include the defendant having no significant prior criminal history, committing the crime while under "extreme mental or emotional disturbance" and the age at the time of the alleged crime.
The Long Haul
Death penalty cases are also infamous for their length, with most lasting anywhere from two to three weeks, according to Houchin.
"In long cases, the harder part for finding jurors is finding people who can spend two or three weeks out of work," he said.
The trials are more involved, since the defense brings in a second attorney to assist and witnesses are often brought in from out of state, Houchin said.
Death penalty cases can also happen in two phases. Part one would consist of the jury unanimously finding a defendant guilty of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt.
If the trial gets this far, part two will have both sides show aggravating and mitigating evidence for the jury to consider when recommending a sentence.
"It does not have to be a unanimous vote, but they make a recommendation to the judge, life or death, and then it's the judge's final decision in weighing these aggravating circumstances," Houchin said.
Of course, sentencing a defendant to death can be an expensive endeavor. Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC).
Based on the 44 executions the state had carried out since 1976, that comes to $24 million for each execution, according to information from a Jan. 4, 2000 edition of the Palm Beach Post.
The Sunshine State has put 66 inmates to death since 1976, including two so far this year, according to DPIC statistics. In 2007, Florida executed no death row prisoners.
Death May Not Always Be The Case
Even though a notice seeking the death penalty may be filed, Houchin said it can be taken back at some point if the case warrants it.
That is not going to be the case in the upcoming Altersberger trial.
"We recently sent the defense a short little letter saying we would not consider anything but death," Houchin said.