Monday, April 6, 2009

State OK with life for two Lee County Killers

Top prosecutor defends pair of recent sentences


Despite the brutal killings they committed, Fred Cooper and Alberto Hernandez — Lee County’s most recent death-penalty-eligible defendants — were spared the ultimate punishment.

But State Attorney Stephen Russell said his prosecutors must follow the law, and not seek death based on emotion. Life sentences for the two are appropriate, he says, and the decisions were made after much thought.

“It’s not as simple as a blogger says, ‘Well, hang him,’” Russell said Thursday, a day after Hernandez accepted a plea agreement putting him away for life. “Some people see life — day in and day out in a cell — as worse punishment than a death that may take three minutes.”

Of the eight Lee County men on Florida’s death row, only two have been sent there in the past 10 years. The only Lee County death row inmate executed in the last 32 years was Arthur Goode, who raped and strangled 9-year-old Jason Verdow in Cape Coral in 1976 and was executed in 1984.

According to research by The News-Press, prosecutors have sought death for as many as two dozen murder defendants since 1999. Ten of those cases are still active, while two men were found not guilty. Most of the rest were convicted and sentenced to life in prison or at least 15 years behind bars.

Hernandez, 41, pleaded guilty Wednesday to first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse on the second day of his jury selection, guaranteeing him a life sentence. He faced the death penalty if convicted of raping and killing Michelle Fontanez, his stepdaughter, in 2006.

In February, Cooper, 30, was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and armed burglary, but his Pinellas County jury recommended he spend his life in prison instead. A judge followed the jury’s recommendation.

Saves testimony

Russell said he supports the decision to allow Hernandez to plead guilty to first-degree murder and spend his life in prison. The offer had been on the table from assistant state attorney Francine Donnorummo for a while, and Hernandez’s attorneys convinced him Wednesday to accept.

Donnorummo said she agreed to go through with the plea because Fontanez’s mother and brother preferred a life sentence for Hernandez and it saved the girl’s family from having to testify, and listen to testimony, about the girl’s injuries and death.

Russell said it is difficult to hear criticism from the public when Donnorummo held Fontanez’s hand in the hospital and was involved with the case since the beginning.

“It’s hard when I see people busting their butts,” Russell said of his prosecutors.
“They have kids. They’d rather spend more time with their kids, but they’re here.”

Donnorummo said evidence showed Fontanez was raped and then suffocated by Hernandez.

One of Hernandez’s attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Neil McLoughlin, said it would have been difficult for Hernandez to avoid the death penalty because of the details in the case.

“Usually when you have a child, (a jury’s) going to lean toward the death penalty,” McLoughlin said. “Especially if you’re a parent — if you have a child, they want revenge. To them, there’s absolutely no excuse for that.”

Russell said the decision to seek the death penalty is made after a group of senior prosecutors meets and presents its recommendation to Russell. Ultimately, it is his decision.

He said the penalty must make sense for the family and for the public. A family’s wishes influence a prosecutor, he said.

“It’s an important factor, but it’s not the ultimate factor,” Russell said. “At the end of the day, we have to take the emotion out of it.”

Foreman stands firm

Cooper’s case was a bit different.

The Bonita Springs man went to trial and was convicted of killing Steven and Michelle Andrews in their Gateway home in 2006.

The foreman on Cooper’s trial, Tim Bouchard, said he still believes the jury’s 8-4 recommendation for life is the right decision.

“I really couldn’t imagine what the death penalty would accomplish,” Bouchard said. “My personal opinion was it didn’t do anybody any good to sentence this man to death.”

Bouchard said after the trial ended, he considered voting for death. But after the state and defense presented evidence for and against death two days later, his choice for life was obvious. Listening to Cooper’s family testify about Cooper and his daughter changed Bouchard’s mind.

Criticism from readers on was unfounded, he said.

“Unless you’re there on the jury making that decision, I don’t think you can throw the word ‘coward’ around,” Bouchard said, referring to readers’ responses. “It was a horrible, premeditated crime. But in the end, there were eight of us in the jury room that decided life was the right decision.”

Sheriff’s Sgt. Walter Ryan, who was lead detective in both cases, believes life sentences are appropriate for Cooper and Hernandez.

“What matters in this case — as well as all others I investigate — is that justice is served and families have some closure,” he said. “Although this life sentence will not bring back Michelle Fontanez, I am very pleased with the fact that Alberto Hernandez will never be able to be in a position to victimize another child for the remainder of his life.”

And for both murderers, it will be a long time of thinking, Ryan said.

“I feel having to spend the remainder of your life — never to see the light of day outside of steel bars and barbed wire, recollecting on the poor decisions you have made — is far more than just an easy way out of having to deal with the consequences of your decisions by being put to death,” Ryan said.

McLoughlin, who has visited several of the state’s facilities, said living in prison can be brutal.

“They’re not places you’d want to spend the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s sort of like being on the streets, where everyone has an angle. Unless you have a skill the tough guys want, you’re at the mercy of them. It’s not an easy life.”


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