Monday, October 26, 2009

Labarga homesick, but enjoying high court


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, October 19, 2009

Life is very different now for state Supreme Court Justice Jorge Labarga.

The former local judge had to adjust to being part of Florida's highest judicial power, which means long hours reading transcripts and going over challenging death penalty cases.

But it's the little changes that Labarga highlights when he talks about his first 10 months in Tallahassee.

He walks to work on cool mornings, since his apartment is only a couple blocks away from his chambers. He enjoys Tallahassee's old oak trees and rolling hills during his workouts. He is even driving greener, trading in his SUV for a more fuel-efficient Toyota Corolla that makes his monthly road trips to Wellington to see his wife and two daughters much more affordable.

"The only complaint I have is that I am too far away," Labarga said. "There aren't many flights, and a trip from here to West Palm Beach can cost up to $600.

"I'd like to live in (Tallahassee), but I don't want to loose my contacts back home. I'm kind of torn," added Labarga, who joined the court in January.

For now, Labarga spends three weeks out of the month in the state's capital, and comes to West Palm Beach five or six days. He will be in town Friday, when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce presents a plaque from the Palm Beach County Commission in honor of Labarga's work.

Labarga admits he spends endless hours working in his office, even on weekends.

"The Supreme Court is a difficult job because you work with so many different things," he said. "About 75 percent of the cases we work with have to do with the death penalty, and they involve many complicated legal issues and require a lot of work."

The 56-year-old jurist admits that having to attend two executions since he joined the Supreme Court has been an "eerie" experience.

"It's very easy to be in favor of the death penalty when you don't have to work with it," he said, adding that his experience as a trial judge has been a key to his success on the high court.

"Up here, we write these opinions and work in legal terms. Sometimes, unless you've been at a trial level, you don't know how these theories impact practicality," he said.

Born in Havana, Labarga fled Cuba with his parents in 1963, and eventually settled in Pahokee, where his father worked in a sugar mill. He graduated from Forest Hill High School in 1972 and attended college and law school at the University of Florida.

Labarga practiced as a criminal defense attorney, prosecutor and civil litigator before being appointed a judge about 13 years ago and presiding over civil, criminal and family court cases. In the 2000 presidential election, Labarga ruled that constitutional rules did not allow for a re-vote following the issues with Palm Beach County's controversial "butterfly ballots".

Prior to his Supreme Court appointment, Labarga had been appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to the state's Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Although he sometimes misses the courtroom and listening to the evidence in a murder or robbery case, Labarga says he is happy as a Supreme Court Justice.

"It's (the Supreme Court) is really intellectually satisfying," he said.

Mesac Damas, his attorney and judge all a no-show for arraignment


Monday, October 26, 2009

A North Naples man accused of killing his wife and five children last month was arraigned today on six counts of premeditated murder.

Mesac Damas, 33, a cook at a local restaurant, was not in court, and neither were his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Mike Orlando or Collier Circuit Judge Frank Baker. But the small court room was packed with news and TV reporters and cameramen, bailiffs and Linda Oberhaus, the executive director of the Shelter for Women and Children in Naples.

Orlando had already filed a not-guilty plea on Sept. 29 and Assistant State Attorney Dave Scuderi told reporters that Baker had set the case for a sounding on Nov. 25, a status check.

With that, the brief arraignment was over.

The arraignment came a week after Oberhaus and other shelter representatives met with about 15 members of the Haitian community during a Haitian Leadership Forum that enabled shelter representatives to share information about American laws and to learn more about the Haitian culture.

"We recognize that in the Haitian culture they operate differently," Oberhaus said before the arraignment. "From their perspective, women and children are considered property. ... In some cases, when a woman leaves, she dishonors the family and batterers use that to justify their actions."

The father of five faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted of the brutal slayings of Guerline Dieu Damas, 32, and their children: Meshach “Zack,” 9, Maven, 6, Marven, 5, Megan, 3, and Morgan, 19 months. Prosecutors haven't yet announced whether they will seek the death penalty.

Mesac Damas has been held without bond on suicide watch at the Collier County jail, a normal procedure in murder cases. It’s also common for a defendant not to show up for an arraignment when an attorney already has entered a written not-guilty plea.

Last month, Baker granted Orlando’s motion to appoint a forensic psychologist to determine whether Mesac Damas is competent to stand trial and assist him -- and if he was insane at the time of the crime.

Scuderi is assisting the lead prosecutor, State Attorney Steve Russell, whose co-counsel will be Assistant State Attorney Rich Montecalvo.

Collier County sheriff’s deputies were called to the Damas' rented townhouse on Sept. 19 after Guerline Damas hadn’t shown up for work at Publix. Deputies entered the home on Hampton Circle and found a bloody crime scene: Their bodies had been stabbed and their throats slashed.

Mesac Damas had fled to Haiti a day earlier, but was brought back by sheriff’s detectives after he confessed to a Daily News reporter and special agent Peter Kolshorn of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service following his arrest by Haitian police on Sept. 21.

Neighbors and relatives have said Guerline Damas had been packing her vehicle and intended to leave her husband in the days before their bodies were found.

A probation violation hearing was set for today before County Judge Rob Crown, but it was continued to January.

Mesac Damas was serving probation and taking anger management and batterers' classes after pleading to misdemeanor battery in June for hitting and choking his wife and causing their baby to fall to the ground in January. The probation violations involve leaving the county without telling his probation officer and getting arrested on a new offense.

Oberhaus said last week's leadership conference helped both the community and shelter representatives and another will be held with Haitian leaders in January to train leaders to teach the law to their community.

"We're giving them the tools to go back in their community," Oberhaus said. "They provided about as much information to us as we did to them."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Our views: Justice still denied

Wolfinger should reverse course on Dillon pay, state probe must take place

Stupefying and inexcusable. Those words describe State Attorney Norman Wolfinger's refusal to lend his support to proposed state compensation of Satellite Beach native William Dillon for his wrongful conviction in the 1981 murder of James Dvorak.

Dillon spent 27 years of his life behind bars, based on shoddy and potentially criminal practices in the Seminole-Brevard State Attorney's office -- including use of fraudulent dog handler John Preston -- in his trial.

Last year, he was finally vindicated and released after testing performed on a T-shirt worn by Dvorak's killer's showed no DNA match to Dillon's.

Charges were dropped and Wolfinger said a review showed "a jury today would not find Mr. Dillon guilty beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt."

But his release is not enough. Dillon also deserves to be compensated monetarily.

An Uphill Fight

The Innocence Project of Florida and others are working to get the payment, as is Attorney Sandy D'Alemberte, former president of Florida State University Law School.

Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, much to their credit, have stepped up as sponsors of bills to help Dillon in the Legislature.

It won't be an easy fight, but, as Haridopolos told FLORIDA TODAY's editorial board Wednesday, "It's about doing the right thing."

A law passed in 2008 pays wrongfully convicted persons $50,000 a year for their time in prison, but special consent is needed in Dillon's case because state prosecutors never said he was technically exonerated and because he had a minor drug charge from his teens.

We fear those technicalities could perpetuate the gross injustice done to Dillon. Wolfinger has made it more likely by sending a letter to the Special Master who heads up the "claim bills" for the Florida Senate saying he won't support compensation for Dillon.

That opposition betrays a vindictiveness that does not speak well of Wolfinger. He should drop it, and, in the name of justice, champion the cause of compensation for Dillon.

More Stonewalling

Wolfinger's no-vote follows a pattern of closing ranks on investigating possible past corruption in the office, set since the fight to free Wilton Dedge.

Dedge, a Port St. John resident who served 22 years for a rape DNA evidence later showed he didn't commit, was exonerated in 2004, but no thanks to Wolfinger's office.

In a letter by Innocence Project lawyer Milton Hirsch that FLORIDA TODAY published in October 2004, Hirsh said Wolfinger's office fought the exoneration process every step of the way.

He also said Wolfinger, along with assistant state attorneys, "managed to keep Dedge in prison for yet another three years -- knowing full well that he was innocent."

The state attorney's office followed a similar course in the Dillon case, including stalling tactics that delayed his release from prison after DNA evidence excluded him as Dvorak's killer.

Wolfinger has since stonewalled on repeated calls for a thorough probe of possible prosecutorial misconduct in cases that involved Preston.

He's done it even though former prosecutor and Titusville resident Sam Bardwell and retired Brevard Circuit Judge Gilbert Goshorn say the dog-handler was used to trump up evidence to win an unknown number convictions in the 1980s.

A narrow review Wolfinger ordered in August focusing only on murder and battery cases linked to Preston and those now in prison is insufficient.

Restore Public Trust

The truth is an in-house probe of the state attorney's office can't be trusted to go beyond a whitewash, especially since Wolfinger appears to put a higher priority on protecting colleagues who may have broken the law than shining the light of truth on past actions.

That's why we again call on Gov. Charlie Crist and State Attorney General Bill McCollum to order a special grand jury investigation of use of the dog handler and of irregularities such as use of untrustworthy jailhouse snitches and tainted witnesses, practices that trampled defendants' rights to a fair trial.

If Crist and McCollum continue shirking their duty to investigate, Florida's next governor and attorney general should conduct a complete review of alleged prosecutorial abuses, as some candidates have already pledged.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Photo of the day: May 19, 2009

Over 1,200 people rallied in front of the Georgia Capitol this evening for death row inmate Troy Davis. The rally was part of the “Global Day of Action for Troy Davis.” Rallies for Davis were held in 45 states and 28 countries.

One of the rally’s speakers was Juan Melendez, a former death row inmate who served 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Melendez was freed in January 2002 after another person’s confession to the murder for which he was convicted was allowed to be heard in court. Just as in Davis’ case, no physical evidence linked Melendez to the crime. He was convicted on the false testimony of a police informant who was paid $5,000 for the tip that cost Melendez 17 years of his life behind bars. “You can never release an innocent man from the grave,” Melendez said during his speech at the rally.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Crist needs to rein in death-by-petition

The Tampa Tribune
Published: October 14, 2009
Floridians who support the death penalty are understandably frustrated by the seemingly endless appeals that can delay justice for decades.
Still, Gov. Charlie Crist sends a dangerous message when he allows petition drives to influence the signing of death warrants. Allowing public outrage to affect signings diminishes the justice system and politicizes the gravest of decisions.
Last week Crist signed a death warrant against the killer of a Polk County sheriff's deputy and two others during a vicious 1981 crime spree. The decision came about a week after Polk Sheriff Grady Judd started an online petition drive urging the governor to sign the warrant.
A coincidence? It doesn't look that way.
As the Tribune's Ray Reyes reported, Judd said he talked to Crist about the case in August, and "he told me he would be all over it." A spokeswoman for the governor downplayed the timing of Crist signing the warrant, saying the Polk case and others had been under review for some time.
But it wasn't until a week after the sheriff started his petition - which was signed by more than 2,050 residents and attracted press coverage - that the governor felt obligated to put his signature on paper.
The inmate, Paul Beasley Johnson, deserves to pay the ultimate penalty. But the timing by the self-proclaimed "people's governor" is suspicious, and Johnson's attorney says he hasn't exhausted all his appeals.
Now, as a result of the grandstanding Judd's efforts, a petition drive has been launched to persuade Crist to schedule the execution of a man who killed a state trooper near the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River in 1987.
The Bradenton Herald reported that the family of the slain trooper, Jeff Young, started the petition after seeing a news report about Judd's effort.
Crist needs to discourage this death-by-petition movement. Otherwise, grieving families will feel compelled to undertake similar campaigns. The governor's decision on when to sign a death warrant should not be based on which case has generated the most public outrage.
First-degree murder and death penalty statutes are complicated by design and allow for several appeals. That's because nothing can be left to chance when someone is sentenced to die. Whether the right person has been convicted and the condemned receives a fair trial have to be examined in detail.
Appeals must be exhausted, and cases must be thoroughly reviewed by attorneys before a governor should sign a death warrant and schedule an execution.
Yes, it is absurd that someone can remain on death row for decades after a conviction.
And yes, the system does seem tilted in favor of the defendant, forcing survivors to relive their nightmares far too many times.
But if Crist - a lawyer and former Florida attorney general - is facing such a backlog of death row cases that he needs more lawyers to help him review them, he should hire them.
Public sentiment should have nothing to do with when the governor decides to sign a death warrant.
In fact, such poor policy could result in yet more appeals - further delaying the justice sought by the victims' families.

Stallworth to face death penalty

from staff reports

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 8:43 AM CDT

Brewton native Donnie Ray Stallworth, one of seven people charged with murder in the deaths of a Pensacola-area couple, will face the death penalty, a state attorney announced Monday in Florida.

Stallworth, 28, and defendants Leonard Gonzalez Jr., 35; Wayne Coldiron, 41; and Frederick Thornton Jr., 19. will face the death penalty, state attorney Bill Eddins said, according to the Pensacola News-Journal.

Stallworth, a 1999 graduate of T.R. Miller High School, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the July 9 shooting deaths of Byrd and Melanie Billings, a Beulah, Fla., couple known for adopting special needs children.

Stallworth turned himself in to authorities in his hometown a few days later, as the investigation in Florida revealed an elaborate home invasion plot.

Authorities have said they believe Gonzales Jr. was the shooter in the case, but seven suspects are charged with murder.

A juvenile charged with murder cannot face the death penalty under Florida law.

At a probable cause hearing held when Stallworth fought extradition to Florida, an Escambia County, Fla., sheriff’s deputy said Stallworth carried a gun into the Billings home and also carried a small safe out of the house.

Florida Wants Death Penalty for Billings Suspects

Prosecutors in Pensacola announced they will seek the death penalty for four men accused of the murders of a Florida couple known for adopting children with special needs. Two others accused in the killings and a woman charged as an accessory will not face the death penalty.

Byrd and Melanie Billings were killed in their bedroom on July 9.

Facing the death penalty are Leonard Patrick Gonzalez Jr., 35, the alleged ring leader (pictured above); Donnie Ray Stallworth, 28; Wayne Thomas Coldiron, 41; and Frederick Lee Thornton Jr., 19.

All defendants have entered not guilty pleas, including Gary Lamont Sumner Jr., 30 and Rakeem Florence, 16. Pamela Laverne Long Wiggins has been charged as an accessory to the crime.

Billings Murder Suspects Face Death Penalty

By Jessica Taloney Reporter
Published: October 12 2009 - 2:44 pm Last Updated: October 12 2009 - 3:11 pm

Florida State Attorney Bill Eddins announced Monday he will seek the death penalty for four of the seven men accused of killing Byrd and Melanie Billings during a home invasion July 9.

Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Jr., 35, Wayne Coldiron, 41, Donnie Stallworth, 28 and Fredrick Thornton, 19 are named in a press release sent to the media Monday afternoon. The press release included just three sentences, and ended with "no further information can be released regarding this matter."

A teenager, Rakeem Florence, and two other men, Gary Sumner and Leonard Patrick Gonzalez, Sr., are charged with murder in the case but were not named in the press release. Florida law forbids prosecutors from seeking the death penalty against 16 year old Florence because of his age.

All seven men are in the Escambia County Jail without bond. An eighth suspect, Pamela Long Wiggins, is charged as an accessory after the crime.

Investigators insist the motive of the home invasion and double murder was robbery, but thousands of pages of discovery documents released to the media in August reveal Gonzalez, Jr., the alleged mastermind of the attack, may have been hired to commit the crime.

Byrd and Melanie Billings, a couple well known for adopting special needs children, were shot to death in their Beulah, Florida home.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Man convicted of strangling girlfriend

POINCIANA, Fla. -- An Orlando man has been found guilty of strangling his girlfriend and burning her body on the side of a road in central Florida.

Jurors spent two day deliberating before finding 30-year-old Mourad Balzourt guilty Friday of first-degree murder and abuse of a dead human body.

Prosecutors say Balzourt killed 22-year-old Solymarie Roman because he was upset that she had been communicating with her ex-boyfriend.

Firefighters found the woman's charred body after responding to a brush fire in Poinciana in November 2007. An autopsy determined that Roman was asphyxiated before the fire.

He faces life in prison. A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.

Information from: The Ledger,

Jury recommends death for convicted killer

The Associated Press

A Treasure Coast jury has recommended that a judge return a man to death row after his second conviction for killing a woman in 2002.

The St. Lucie County jury voted 9-3 on Friday for the execution of Andrew Michael Gosciminski, 56. The same jury found him guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder, robbery and burglary in the 2002 brutal slaying of Joan Loughman, 55.

Circuit Judge Robert Belanger will make the final decision on Gosciminski's sentence at a Nov. 6 hearing, but state law dictates that he give the jury's recommendation significant weight.

After court, jury foreman Tavoris Ingram said he had no doubt Gosciminski deserved death.

"I was pushing for a 12 and 0 for the death penalty," he told Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. "I just felt it was a heinous crime, the way he did it and how he did it."

Gosciminski met Loughman through an assisted-living facility where Gosciminski worked and Loughman's father was a patient. Gosciminski had planned to steal $40,000 worth of jewelry, particularly a 2-carat diamond ring that has never been recovered, prosecutors said.

Gosciminski attacked the woman Sept. 24, 2002, at her father's home, where Gosciminski beat her, stabbed her and cut her throat, prosecutors said.

Gosciminski had already been convicted and sentenced to death in 2005, but the Florida Supreme Court threw out the conviction last year and ordered a new trial. The high court ruled some evidence during his 2005 trial had been improperly admitted.

Gosciminski's attorney, Chief Assistant Public Defender Mark Harllee, said his client is optimistic about his chances on another appeal with the Florida Supreme Court. The appeal will likely focus on the overall lack of direct evidence, the attorney said.

"It was a total circumstantial evidence case," Harllee said.

Ex-prosecutor Robert Carney draws scrutiny over disputed murder cases

Broward Circuit Judge Robert Carney looking through the window of the door to his courtrom. As a prosecutor, he has been involved in a number of case that have been overturned or put in question. (Mike Stocker, S-S / September 17, 2009)

For five years, Robert Carney, a Vietnam-era Marine, represented the people of Broward County in murder cases, a prosecutor's gravest responsibility. It was his duty to bring killers to account, to seek justice and the truth in cases where the defendant faced life in prison or the ultimate penalty — execution.

A brainy, aggressive prosecutor, Carney became known around the courthouse for his ability to look jurors in the eye and deliver his closing arguments without notes. He was later appointed to a judgeship, a position he announced in August he will retire from at the end of this year.

As Carney, 62, spends his final months in judicial robes, though, hard questions have arisen about his role in four murder cases from the 1980s.

Those cases were thrown out on appeal, disproved by DNA evidence or have become marred by serious doubt that justice was truly done.

"The public should absolutely be concerned any time you have one person involved in a single wrongful conviction," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, a Tallahassee-based organization that investigates claims of innocence.

"When someone has been involved with four wrongful convictions, it is something that deserves further scrutiny," Miller said.

As a homicide prosecutor, Carney played a major part in three Broward murder cases — against John Purvis, Anthony Caravella and Christopher Clugston — that were thrown out by appeals courts or in which the validity of the convictions has been greatly undermined. He also played a lesser role in one of Florida's most notorious wrongful convictions, that of Frank Lee Smith.

Carney declined to be interviewed by the Sun Sentinel in person or by phone for this story, but agreed to make some comments by e-mail. He declined to discuss details of the cases.

"It is easy to sit as a Monday morning quarterback and judge from a perspective 25 years later with information unknown at the time of prosecution," Carney wrote.

Two of the cases involve unconnected murders committed days apart in November 1983, in Miramar and Fort Lauderdale. Both were assigned to Carney, who won swift convictions of Purvis and Caravella.

One of those long-ago convictions is now back in the news. Caravella was released from prison Sept. 10 after DNA tests cast doubt on his guilt. More testing is being done that could lead to his exoneration.

Both prosecutions were built on the shaky foundations of incriminating confessions. Purvis was schizophrenic, with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old. Caravella was 15 and had an IQ of 67. In both instances, Carney sought the death penalty but jurors voted for life in prison.

Questions have arisen in the two cases about whether Carney should have turned over evidence to the defense that might have set off alarms about the reliability of the confessions and the strength of the state's case.

Purvis' conviction took nearly 10 years to fall apart; Caravella's may be unraveling 26 years later.

Carney said two juries were convinced of both men's guilt.

"Twelve people unanimously, in both cases attributable to me, found there was no reasonable doubt. That is how the system works," Carney wrote. "The 'new' evidence came to light long after trial and could not have been reasonably known before trial. In Caravella, the [DNA] science was not available in 1983," he wrote.

Prosecutors play a key role in the justice system, Carney said, but are not the only players. Judges monitored his conduct; each accused man had an attorney; juries indicted and later convicted both defendants; and appeals courts initially upheld the convictions, he said.

"Yet in spite of these safeguards, the system is not perfect and, on occasion, there is a bad result," Carney wrote. "When it happens it is a stark reminder to all of us of the gravity of what we do. If an innocent person serves time for a crime he or she did not commit, this is a terrible thing and is felt deeply by all who are involved in the process."

Some of the defense attorneys involved in the four murder cases said that they lay more of the blame for what has happened on police — who initially targeted the suspects and interrogated them — than on Carney.

Carolyn McCann, the prosecutor who is handling the Caravella appeal and is familiar with some of the other cases, said Carney is an honorable person.

Broward prosecutors have worked to correct any issues in cases he handled, as well as others, as soon as problems became known, she said.

"I don't believe any prosecutor, including Rob Carney, would ever want to convict an innocent person," McCann said. If Caravella is exonerated, Steven Drizin, a law professor with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, said there should be an independent investigation of every aspect of the case.

"It's way too early to focus blame on a single [person in the justice system]," Drizin said. "Often these cases are a total system meltdown beginning with the police, moving on to the prosecutor and defense attorney and ultimately to the judiciary and the jury."

Drizin added: "What is striking to me is we're talking about a death penalty case against a 15-year-old. You'd think every effort would have been made to ensure it was being done right."

Carney was a Broward prosecutor for nine years and has spent 24 years on the bench. Once dubbed "the jumping judge" because of his love of sky diving, he is regarded as intelligent and organized. He was known as one of the county's top prosecutors, tough but persuasive, and with evident ambitions to earn a black robe. His record as a prosecutor is still being assessed.

Ed McGee, who was a prosecutor with Carney in the 1970s, later defended a homicide case Carney prosecuted, and has represented clients before him as a judge. He said Carney is a "straight shooter" and "takes his job very seriously and does it very, very, very well."


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Edwards found guilty of first degree premeditated murder


A jury Friday found Travis Lee Edwards guilty of first degree premeditated murder in connection with the 2004 strangling and beating death of his twin brother’s girlfriend.

Edwards also was found guilty of a kidnapping and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

During the four-day trial, attorneys for Edwards, a diagnosed schizophrenic, admitted he killed 27-year-old Karen Muscovitz on Jan. 4, 2004, then for two days held hostage a friend of hers who dropped by the home Edwards shared with the victim and his brother.

“I am ecstatic. We finally get justice,” said Arnie Muscovitz, the victim’s 60-year-old father who lives in Lowell, Mass. “I have been flying back and forth to Florida for so many years.”

The state attorney’s office has waived the death penalty in the case.

Defense attorneys had argued that Edwards was legally insane at the time of the incident, and believed that Karen Muscovitz was a spy with a mob organization trying to kill him and his sibling.

Edwards’ brother and guardian, Brent Edwards, was in jail at the time of the killing.

Edwards’ mother, Jan Carey, testified Thursday afternoon that her son began displaying signs of paranoia more than 15 years ago.

“He just felt like planes flying overhead, people that lived next door were spying on him,” said Carey, the first defense witness. “He needed a psychiatrist, he needed an evaluation or something, he needed help.”

However, Assistant State Attorney Rob Park countered that Edwards never tried to harm Muscovitz until he was alone with her because he knew what he was doing and the consequences he might face.

Even if were suffering from a delusion at the time of the alleged attack, prosecutors argued that he was still guilty because he was not acting in self-defense against a perceived attack by Muscovitz.

Prosecution witnesses included police officers, the medical examiner and the hostage, Jerry Dunn Jr. Jurors also heard audio and saw video of police negotiations during a standoff in which SWAT members took Edwards into police custody.

Contact Summers at 242-3642 or

Swiss Step Up Fight To End Death Penalty

With the current wind of change blowing through the United States, the death penalty will be abolished there in the next 20 years, says a former US death row inmate.

Joaquín José Martinez was in Switzerland on Friday as part of a series of initiatives for the World Day Against the Death Penalty, which takes place on Saturday.

Switzerland, which abolished capital punishment in 1942, is marking the event. It will host the fourth World Congress against the Death Penalty from February 24-26, 2010 in Geneva.

"I used to be a supporter of the death penalty, believing it was flawless and prevented crime, but neither is true," Martinez told journalists in Geneva.

He was sentenced to death in 1997 after being convicted of killing a drug dealer and his girlfriend, but the sentence was overturned in 2001 by the Florida Supreme Court because of irregularities in the trial.

Since his release he has been heavily involved in the fight against the death penalty.

"I was the 96th death row inmate to be released from the US and 30 more have been let out over the past eight years," said Martinez. "Something is happening there that needs to be changed."

But he believes that the death penalty could be abolished there in the next two decades.

"I believe that once the death penalty is abolished, and it won't take over 20 years, the US will become one of its strongest allies," he commented.

Constant battle

According to Amnesty International, at least 2,390 executions were carried out in 2008 in 25 countries. But the actual number worldwide is believed to be much higher.

Many of those affected are youngsters. Since 2007 24 minors have been executed in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

The human rights group says 93 per cent of known executions in 2008 took place in just five countries - China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US. China carried out at least 1,718 executions, 72 per cent of the global total.

There are signs of a global shift away from the death penalty. A total of 139 countries have now abolished capital punishment in practice or in law, compared with 16 in 1976.

But achieving global abolition remains a constant battle. In countries that have abolished the law, like Mexico and the Philippines, pro-death penalty lobbies regularly talk about its reintroduction.

Figures from the end of December 2008 show that around 59 countries have capital punishment. The US is one of only five democracies to still carry out the practice.

Defenders of capital punishment argue that it is a national legal issue and should not be tampered with internationally.

"It remains a very entrenched issue politically," said Dante Martinelli, Switzerland's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.

Foreign policy priority

Switzerland itself has joined forces with the European Union to call for an end to capital punishment.

"The global abolition of the death penalty is one of our foreign policy priorities," explained Rudolf Knoblauch, in charge of human rights policy at the Swiss foreign ministry.

« It remains a very entrenched issue politically. » Dante Martinelli, Swiss ambassador

Switzerland actively takes part in debate against the death penalty in international organisations, including the UN, the Council of Europe, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It also supports non-governmental organisations that are campaigning against it.

In December 2008 the UN General Assembly adopted an EU-backed resolution for a death penalty moratorium, on which Switzerland collaborated very closely.

"And the world congress is a concrete and tangible expression of Swiss foreign policy," said Knoblauch.

Around 1,000 government delegates, experts and civil society representatives will be converging on Geneva next year.

The meeting, which has taken place every three years since 2001, aims to improve synergies between organisations, raise awareness and maintain pressure on wavering states that retain the death penalty but do not use it.

"Countries like China and the US believe the death penalty helps fights crime but there are lots of others which still have it but risk becoming pariahs if they apply it," said Knoblauch.

"In Vietnam we see the government trying to limit the cases for which it can be applied. This is a clear sign that they want to abolish it."

Another aim of the conference is to encourage states to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN treaty aimed at abolishing the death penalty. Between 2001 and 2008, 22 new states signed up, taking the total number to 70.

"This is the only international legal instrument that prohibits the death penalty," said Knoblauch. "It's important that everyone joins it."


Wilton Dedge’s Bike Blast

This weekend, October 10-11, 2009, the Annual Bike Blast will take place in Titusville, FL. This event is very special to us because it is coordinated by Wilton Dedge, who was exonerated in 2004 after DNA testing proved he did not commit the rape for which he was convicted and imprisoned.

Wilton owns a great biker bar in historic Titusville called the Southern Room (345 S Washington Ave) which will be the epicenter of the the event. They expect there to be as many as 5,000 bikes at this 2-day event.

The best part is that they will be having a Poker Run to raise money for the Innocence Project of Florida, which will assist our efforts to find and free the wrongfully convicted. You can view the Poker Run flier and register for the Poker Run. If you would like to be a vendor at the Bike Blast, you can see vendor information and fill out this vendor form.

Come to this great event and support Wilton and the Innocence Project of Florida. For more information, please refer to the Bike Blast flier.

Yo can pre-order a t-shirt that will bear the really cool image above for $15 (which includes shipping) by calling Tina Dedge at 321-208-4768, or by sending your payment to: Bike Blast T-Shirt Order, The Southern Room, 345 S Washington Ave., Titusville, FL 32796.


U.S. Government to Fund Wrongful Conviction Representation and Training Efforts

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, an office within the Department of Justice, announced recently that it will provide nearly $2.5 million in funding this year for 11 organizations working to represent defendants seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. The funding is dedicated to organizations that handle cases where DNA testing cannot help prove innocence. The BJA also announced that it will provide about $100,000 to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to facilitate training to help attorneys and organizations to improve the capacity to represent defendants seeking to prove their innocence in post-conviction appeals.

The organizations awarded grants are: the Idaho Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Minnesota, the Kentucky Innocence Project, the Midwestern Innocence Project, the Northern California Innocence Project, the Alaska Innocence Project, the Cooley Innocence Project (at Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan), the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services, the Innocence Project of Florida, the Michigan State Appellate Defender’s Office and the Arizona Justice Project.

The Innocence Project is a separate non-profit organization from the organizations above, many of which are fellow members of the Innocence Network – an affiliation of organizations dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project only handles cases where DNA testing could prove innocence.

Read more in the BJA statement on the grants.

The Department of Justice also announced recently that it would fund DNA testing in cases of possible wrongful conviction in nine states under the Postconviction DNA Testing Assistance Program. The nine states receiving funds this year are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Mexico and Wisconsin.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wrongful conviction in POLK


The evidentiary hearing was held on May 29, 2001 and May 30, 2001 with Special Assistant CCC-NR Martin McClain, Assistant CCC-NR Linda McDermott, and Assistant CCC-NR Brett Strand representing the Defendant. Hardy Pickard, Assistant State Attorney and Candance Sabella, Assistant Attorney General appeared on behalf of the State of Florida.

Read judge Fleischer`s order

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Judge orders testimony in prison mental health lawsuit

By Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Published Thursday, June 18, 2009

TALLAHASSEE — A state judge is ordering two prison officials to testify today on their role in a disputed decision to switch vendors for mental health care to inmates in South Florida.

"I direct that they appear," Leon County Circuit Judge Frank Sheffield said at a hearing Thursday.

The judge ordered the two employees, Millie Seay and Jimmy Smith, to testify in a lawsuit brought by a company that has been fired by the Department of Corrections.

The firm, MHM Correctional Services of Virginia, is seeking to block the state from replacing it with Correctional Medical Services of St. Louis, at what MHM says is $5 million more.

The lawsuit sheds light on the intense competition among firms to secure lucrative contracts with agencies in Gov. Charlie Crist's administration.

As the judge noted Thursday, "There's a lot of money at stake, and we have time frames imposed of July 1."

MHM attorney Christopher Kise accused the prison system of flagrant violations of state purchasing and open meeting laws, "a rigging of the process" and a waste of taxpayers' money in switching vendors.

He argued that MHM's lawsuit should stay, or prevent, the state from hiring CMS on July 1 for a 120-day period under a special purchase order while the vendor makes the transition as mental health provider.

Attorneys for CMS, which was allowed to intervene in the lawsuit Thursday, told the judge a fast decision is needed because the firm needs to start its work.

CMS attorney Peter Antonacci called the 120-day transition period a contractual "patch" not subject to the state's purchasing laws.

Seay is director of administration for the Department of Corrections, and Smith is assistant program administrator for health services.

Questions surround start of new Supreme Court term

How will Sonia Sotomayor vote? Is John Paul Stevens soon to retire? Will John Roberts and Samuel Alito be more unabashedly conservative? The term begins Monday.

By Warren Richey | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Transition is the word that perhaps best describes the US Supreme Court's 2009-10 term set to begin Monday.

The coming year offers an opportunity for court watchers to more clearly define the character of the emerging Roberts Court during Chief Justice John Roberts's fifth term on the bench. And it presents a chance far superior to the wishy-washy Senate confirmation hearings to finally learn something of the real Sonia Sotomayor, the high court's newest justice.

Will she be a liberal stalwart or a sometimes ally to the conservatives? If so, in which cases?

The term already includes potential blockbuster cases examining the applicability of Second Amendment gun rights to state and local governments, campaign-finance regulations, life sentences for juveniles, and whether Congress violated the separation of powers when it created an independent accounting oversight board.

The court's options will reveal more than just legal winners and losers. How these disputes are analyzed and decided by the justices will offer legal scholars important clues about the evolving dynamics within the nation's highest court.

In addition to the arrival of a new justice, Justice John Paul Stevens's decision to hire only one law clerk (instead of the usual four) for the 2010-11 term has sparked speculation that he intends to leave the court in June.

Among key trends to watch will be whether Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito decide to put an unabashedly conservative stamp on the high court by joining their conservative colleagues to boldly overturn liberal legal precedents despite earlier pledges of a preference for judicial minimalism.

The broad internal dynamics at the Supreme Court are well established, with four liberal justices and four conservative justices. In the middle, often wielding a tiebreaking fifth vote, is Justice Anthony Ken nedy, who leans conservative but sometimes swings to the liberal side in big, high-profile cases.

The arrival of Justice Sotomayor is not expected to significantly change this internal dynamic. Analysts say she should fit comfortably into the liberal wing and is expected to vote in ways similar to David Souter, the justice she replaced.

But she is not Souter. That has some liberals worried and some conservatives hopeful. Early in her legal career, Sotomayor worked as a prosecutor in New York City and later as a federal trial judge. Thus she knows intimately the challenges facing law enforcement officials.

When the high court hears a major case this term on whether police must give precise Miranda warnings before interrogating suspects, court watchers will want to see which Sotomayor votes in the case. Will it be the Latina civil rights activist concerned with defendants' rights, or the former big-city prosecutor concerned with helping the system fight crime and protect victims?

Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer who has often argued before the Supreme Court, says the departure of Mr. Souter and potential retirement of Justice Stevens could result in the court being nudged to the right. This is because their liberal replacements may not command the same respect that allowed Stevens and Souter to sometimes persuade Justice Kennedy to swing to the left.

"When that relationship is broken and you introduce somebody new into the equation, they can't possibly be as persuasive," Mr. Goldstein said in a recent panel discussion at the Cato Institute. "I think the ironic effect of new appointments replacing Justices Stevens and Souter will be to see the court gravitate to the right."

On Roberts and Justice Alito, analysts are awaiting the court's decision in a potential landmark campaign-finance case heard during a special argument session Sept. 9.

At issue in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is whether corporations can be barred from spending their treasury money on politically related advertisements during federal election season. The FEC, citing a 2002 campaign-finance law, said yes. Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group, said the move amounted to government censorship.

Roberts's and Alito's positions in the case are being scrutinized because the justices were confronted with a similar issue in 2006 and refused to join their conservative colleagues in overturning the underlying legal precedents. Now they are being encouraged to take that step again.

Any move to strike down a portion of Congress's 2002 campaign-finance law and an earlier 1990 Supreme Court precedent will be portrayed by liberal critics as a particularly aggressive assertion of power by the high court's conservative wing. And it could be a defining moment for the emerging Roberts Court.

But it won't mean the conservatives will win every big battle at the Supreme Court. With the general 4-to-4 conservative-liberal split on hot-button cases, Kennedy continues to hold the power to decide many of America's most contentious disputes.

One such case involves two Florida teens who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. At issue in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida is whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars Florida from keeping the young men imprisoned for the rest of their lives without any possibility for parole. At age 13, Joe Sullivan raped and robbed a 72-year-old woman. Terrance Graham committed a series of armed robberies at ages 16 and 17.

Kennedy will probably be the deciding vote in the case. In 2005, he provided the key vote to declare the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional. The question in the case is whether the same reasoning applies in the circumstances of the two Florida teens.

Free speech is also on the court's radar this term. At issue in US v. Stevens is whether Congress has the power to ban possession and distribution of images of animal cruelty, such as pit bull fights. A Virginia man was charged under a 1999 federal statute for including footage of a dogfight in Japan (where such fights are legal) in a documentary film he produced and distributed in the US. The central question is whether the First Amendment protects such depictions.

In another Florida case, the justices have agreed to examine a property rights dispute in which owners of seafront property complain that the state used a beach renourishment program to strip them of their legal rights as waterfront property owners.

Under the Flor ida plan, sand was pumped onto the beach and the state claimed the new dry land for itself. Private waterfront property suddenly became landlocked.

A state appeals court ruled that the owners were due just compensation from the state, but Florida's Supreme Court upheld the state action.

In US v. Comstock, the court will examine a federal law that allows the government to hold alleged sexual predators indefinitely in protective custody once they are deemed to be "sexually dangerous," even after they have served a full criminal sentence.

BSO: Deputy Demands Cash From Suspect

Deputy Faces Extortion, Drug Charges
POSTED: Sunday, October 4, 2009
UPDATED: 4:48 am EDT October 6, 2009

Manuel Silva
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A Broward Sheriff's Office deputy was arrested Friday, accused of extorting money from a man in return for not arresting him on drug charges.

Manuel Silva, 34, a nine-year department veteran, was charged with armed burglary, armed extortion and two counts of drug possession.

BSO said that on Sept. 29, Silva, wearing plain clothes and displaying his badge and gun, went to the Fort Lauderdale-area home of 38-year-old Orlando Gutierrez. Police said Gutierrez allowed Silva to search the home, where the deputy found five marijuana plants.

"Instead of arresting the drug suspect, he demanded money from him," said Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti.

According to BSO, the deputy told Gutierrez that if he paid cash to him, he would not be arrested and his marijuana plants would not be confiscated. Police said Silva also promised to tell Gutierrez who had tipped him off about the pot plants.

When Gutierrez told Silva he needed a few days to get the money, police said, Silva said it would cost him more. The pair arranged to meet Friday afternoon to make the exchange, according to investigators.

BSO said that Silva went back to Gutierrez's home in an unmarked BSO car, took part of the cash payment and gave Gutierrez a photo of the tipster.

According to police, Silva returned later for the rest of the money later that evening. Detectives followed Silva from the neighborhood and arrested him in Plantation.

BSO said the detectives found illegal prescription drugs in Silva's police cruiser, as well.

Silva is being held without bond in the maximum security section of the Broward County Main Jail.

Gutierrez is cooperating with the investigation, but no one at his home was willing to talk to Local 10.

Silva's arrest is the second high-profile arrest of a BSO deputy this year. In August, Deputy Jonathan Bleiweiss was charged with multiple felony counts, accused of coercing male illegal immigrants to have sex with him while he was on duty.

Lamberti said the arrests are disappointing but that they showed that the department is policing itself.

"I am proud of the fact that an outside agency did not come in and tell us we had a dirty deputy," Lamberti said.

No one was home at Silva's Davie apartment Monday.

"We are still working on the case. By no means is it over. The investigation continues. We are going to leave no stone unturned because I think there are more people involved," Lamberti said.

BSO asked that any other alleged victims call the police department's internal affairs division at 954-321-1100.

Excerpts from editorials in Florida newspapers

By The Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 at 1:38 p.m.
Here are excerpts from editorials in newspapers in Florida:


Oct. 6

The Miami Herald, on how Florida Senate should approve shield law bill with or without White House help:

The Obama administration's efforts to impede Senate approval of a law designed to protect reporters from punishment if they refuse to divulge confidential sources are both surprising and utterly disappointing.

As a candidate, Sen. Obama endorsed the "media shield" that allows courts to decide whether a confidential source deserves protection. (So did Sen. John McCain, the Republican contender.) As a senator, Mr. Obama co-sponsored an earlier version of the bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering.

Now that he's the decider, Mr. Obama has developed cold feet. Last week, he let lawmakers know that he wanted the bill changed in a way that would cripple key provisions on when and how to invoke protections for reporters and their sources. This would gut the essential provisions of the proposed law.

No one disputes that there are instances when the government should have the right to compel information to safeguard the public. That is why all versions of the bill offer a qualified, rather than absolute privilege, with courts providing meaningful judicial review to determine when the "media shield" should come into play.

It also requires prosecutors to make reporters the last stop, not the first stop, for finding the source of information. More important, it offers a balancing test that weighs the needs of the government for information against "the public interest in gathering news and maintaining the free flow of information."

Mr. Obama apparently decided he didn't want any of this after meeting last week with his national security team. The administration has proposed changes that would eliminate the balancing test in cases deemed "significant" to national security. Judges would be instructed to be deferential to government claims about the significance of a leak.

These changes would turn reporters into government accessories, answerable to prosecutors instead of the public. Judges have never been noticeably partial toward reporters when national security issues are raised, so it's hard to see why the administration would oppose independent judicial review. These proposals stack the deck in favor of investigators instead of obliging them to prove their case - always convenient when your case is weak.

The Judiciary Committee should quit trying to work with the White House and approve the bill as is. A version has passed in the House. That would oblige President Obama to openly oppose the media shield he once favored or veto it when it comes to his desk.

Ideally, he would embrace a bill he once backed.


On the Net:


Oct. 6

Ocala Star-Banner, on how Florida lawmakers should focus on sales tax revenues than cutting millions of dollars on education:

It is perplexing that Florida lawmakers would knowingly let $2 billion or more in sales tax revenues slip through their hands year after year at the same time they are cutting billions in education, health care and public safety dollars because of declining tax collections.

But that is exactly what is happening in our state as the Legislature repeatedly sidesteps changing its own laws and pressing Congress to change theirs so the state can begin collecting sales tax on Internet sales. And with online sales growing at a much faster pace than those of traditional brick-and-mortar retailers - online sales rose 6 percent last year, even in a down economy - the untapped tax bounty is only likely to grow.

The latest effort to reap Internet sales taxes is being led by state Reps. Kurt Kelly, R-Ocala, and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. They have introduced a resolution calling for Congress to enact a law requiring retailers to collect sales taxes from customers not physically located in the same state as them. Congressional action is necessary to override a 1992 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting such collections under existing law.

It is inexplicable that Florida has been so resistant to going after Internet sales tax dollars. It is patently unfair that Florida businesses who sell items from storefronts must charge 6 percent more than for the same item bought online. And with anywhere from one-third to one-half of all Americans now shopping online regularly - and growing - it is simply fiscal folly to continue to ignore the issue, especially at a time when the state is facing another year of draconian state funding cuts.

Congress, meanwhile, needs to finally come into the 21st century and recognize that, increasingly, states are losing important tax dollars - sales taxes represent about one in three state tax dollars in Florida - and pass a uniform national law for the collection of online taxes. Their action would supersede the Supreme Court ruling.

Some in Tallahassee and Washington, of course, will argue that this tax reform is a tax increase. Hardly. It merely is collecting taxes that already are due the people of Florida. More to point, it is merely the fair and fiscally prudent thing to do, to put traditional retailers and online retailers on a level playing field.

Kelly and Vasilinda are right to bring this issue to the table - again. We urge them not to quit pushing it. Fair is fair, and as things stand, they are not fair to traditional businesses or the people of Florida.


On the Net:


Oct. 5

The Palm Beach Post, on the delay of FPL's request for a billion dollar annual rate increase:

As usual, Gov. Crist is grandstanding on Florida Power & Light. This time, though, he's got a point.

On Friday, the governor asked Public Service Commission Chairman Matthew Carter to delay a decision on FPL's $1.3 billion annual rate increase until the new commission takes over in January. A day before he sent the letter, Gov. Crist replaced Mr. Carter and Commissioner Katrina McMurrian. The terms of their replacements begin in January.

Hearings on the rate request began in August, and the commission was supposed to rule in October. But a series of ethics controversies has distracted and embarrassed the commission. Last spring, Ms. McMurrian attended a private dinner with utility executives whose cases she was about to hear. Staff members admitted to attending a private party at an FPL executive's home and giving an FPL lawyer back-channel access.

We editorialized that Ms. McMurrian should not rule on the FPL case. On Monday, she went one better and resigned. For that reason, it might make sense for the current commission to decide the FPL rate case. In fact, there are more reasons why the next commission should do so.

First, Ms. McMurrian's resignation makes possible a deadlock among the remaining four commissioners. Second, because the controversies have delayed the FPL rate hearing - three more days of testimony remain - the decision already has been split. On Dec. 21, the current commission is supposed to decide whether FPL will get all or part of the company's request, or will owe customers refunds, as the Office of Public Counsel has argued. On Jan. 11, the new commission would decide how any rate increase would be collected. Finally, a commissioner who voted with the majority on Dec. 21 could ask for reconsideration on Jan. 11, and the new commission could undo what the old commission did.

Admittedly, the two new commissioners would have to be quick studies. The FPL rate case will have taken 15 days of hearings, one of which went until 11 p.m. Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, who represents consumers before the commission, estimates that there will be "tens of thousands of pages" of transcripts. A decision might not come until March.

Still, there is precedent for commissioners ruling on cases on which they did not sit. This commission is so tainted that a new look would be more credible. Also, the Office of Public Counsel argues persuasively that, despite the company's claim, FPL could not raise rates automatically on Jan. 1 while waiting for the commission to rule. Doing so, Associate Public Counsel Joseph McGlothlin said, would violate a rate-freeze agreement FPL signed in 2005.

Gov. Crist said, basically, that he would decide whether to keep Commissioners Carter and McMurrian if they rejected FPL's request. That was irresponsible. Though he's again seeking political points, this time, good politics is better policy.


On the Net:


Oct. 5

The Tampa Tribune, on citizens demanding change for the death penalty:

Who would shed tears for John Couey, the notorious child killer who died last week of cancer?

No one, except perhaps those who still mourn Jessica Lunsford and who believe her killer got off easy.

Indeed, men who rape and murder children make the case for the death penalty. There are some crimes that are so egregious, so malevolent that state-approved execution retributive justice is not only understandable, but necessary.

Think of Danny Rolling, executed by lethal injection three years ago for the 1990 murders of five students in Gainesville. Or triple murderer Oba Chandler, who sits on death row for the 1989 murders of an Ohio mother and her teenage daughters.

Or serial killer Oscar Ray Bolin, who viciously killed three women 23 years ago and, after nine trials and eight death sentences, continues to plague the system with postconviction appeals.

The legacy of men like these hurts the cause of those who would change the state's system of capital punishment or do away with the death penalty altogether.

And it's in large part why lawmakers tend to shun reform efforts meant to assure citizens our system of capital punishment is fair and consistent.

But three years ago the Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team made recommendations that should not have been ignored, and death penalty experts, both pro- and con-, have renewed calls for change. They met last month in Tallahassee to discuss the recommendations and develop strategies to see them put in place.

It's a good time to press lawmakers. Capital punishment is not cheap. The Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, says it costs Florida $51 million more to house death-row inmates than murderers sentenced to life without parole. With the state financially strapped, the cost of death row should be part of the discussion.

And although Florida demands stringent qualifications for trial lawyers in capital cases, the state caps attorney fees at $3,500 for postconviction appeals, discouraging all but the most inexperienced attorneys. Lawmakers should set a more realistic fee schedule.

Finally, it's important to note that while Florida has executed 68 people since 1976, it has exonerated 23 inmates on death row more than any other state. This statistic certainly suggests our system isn't perfect.

Citizens demand only one thing before the state invokes the ultimate penalty unfailing certainty that the person is guilty. Reforming Florida's death penalty system is the surest way of ensuring it can administer the ultimate penalty to the Coueys, Rollings, Chandlers and Bolins of the world.


On the Net:

Florida pushes ahead with an all-digital courthouse

The Florida Supreme Court is expected to approve new rules that will make most courthouse documents and records available to anyone who can get onto the Internet.

Aaron Deslatte

Sentinel Staff Writer

October 5, 2009


Florida courts could look a lot more inviting to Internet users in the near future.

The Florida Supreme Court is moving toward opening more court records to digital users, planning to approve rules this fall to govern the digital road.

But it's a future that holds broad risks and rewards for lawsuit-filers, coach potatoes and consumers as the state's court system wrestles with the competing concerns of access to the 19 million court documents filed every years and individual privacy.

Companies long have used the Internet and data-sorting technologies to sell -- or deny -- service. Programs allow them to download and sift through rafts of personal information -- from consumer credit scores to driving histories to past addresses to magazine subscriptions -- to build consumer profiles.

The digital courthouse would offer much more information.

In the not-too-distant future, Florida court clerks would feed filings -- from divorce records and civil suits to court testimony and judicial orders -- into a single Web portal that would allow instant access to anyone worldwide.

"It's a cost savings to the public," said Marion County Court Clerk David Ellspermann, who served on a court-created committee that spent the last two years researching and drafting the proposed new rules. "If you're not at my courthouse interrupting my staff, then I get more work done."

For much of this decade, though, Florida court administrators have struggled with how to balance the state's tradition of broad government openness against 21st-century Internet criminals.

Since 2006, the Supreme Court has barred county clerks from placing court records online. It's fear: That confidential information like Social Security or bank account numbers could fall into the hands of criminals or that data companies could use search programs to aggregate individual information that would be packaged with other data for telemarketing.

The order was issued after a few court clerks began scanning court documents and placing them on their Web sites. In 2005, Ellspermann was the first clerk to start redacting the documents he was placing online.

But the move toward digital records had already incited a statewide debate over whether all 1,000-plus exemptions carved into Florida's public records laws by the state Legislature should be applied to court records. Traditionally, everything in a paper court file was available to the public unless it was ordered sealed by a judge.

Critics worried that if everything in a file was available digitally, casual Internet users -- so-called "jammy surfers," people sitting at a computer in their pajamas -- could access personal information about individuals and, potentially, information deemed "trade secrets" by companies.

The struggle played out behind the scenes between county clerks, judges, media companies and others about how and when to make paper court records available on the Internet.

"We ran into this huge problem, which had not been thought about by anybody. To what extent does a legislative exemption from the public records apply when that information appears in the online court record?" said John Kaney, Jr., a Volusia County lawyer and general counsel for the First Amendment Foundation, which is financially supported by the media.

The Committee on Privacy and Court Records, formed by the court to study the issue, reported in 2006 that it appeared all the statutory exemptions did apply, based on the way judicial rules were worded — but that such an interpretation flew in the face of Florida's open-records tradition and was unworkable when applied to court records.

While the panel and court agreed electronic access to non-confidential records should be a goal, the Supreme Court withheld judgment on whether it supported applying all 1,000 exemptions to court records. Rather, it tasked another panel called the Committee on Access to Court Records to study how to fix the rules.

"The amount of information collected in litigation is enormous," said Jon Mills, a University of Florida law professor and former state House speaker who chaired the first "privacy" committee.

"This is the classic horse out of the barn analogy. Once information has gone on the Web, it's sort of gone."

Last year, the second committee recommended a new rule that creates 19 categories for confidential documents, including sexually transmitted disease records, paternity determinations, the names of child abuse victims and identities of confidential informants. Lawyers will also have the option of asking a judge to close additional records.

The Supreme Court heard arguments over the proposal last month from clerks, media lawyers, and the committee that drafted it. Although some changes related to grand jury information are under discussion, most watchers expect the rule to be put in place in the coming months.

That will set off an educational process for lawyers and the public, its authors said.

"Part of the educational process that needs to happen is to make lawyers, people, more aware that that which is in a court file is publicly viewable," said Miami-Dade Judge Judith Kreeger, who chaired the "access" committee. "And when it becomes available on the Internet, it will become instantaneously publicly viewable. ... I think it has good parts and I think it has risks."

The largest remaining hurdle is how to pay the costs of a statewide Web portal to access court records, committee members said.

Meanwhile, the courts are getting a better idea of the types of people who would likely be the biggest users of electronic court information.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court approved a pilot project in Manatee County, where court administrators have been scanning court documents and making them available only to registered users who identify themselves.

Of the 5,700 registered users, 3,000 were lawyers from around the country, said project manager Jeff Taylor. Another 500 were law enforcement agencies and 1,500 were from the general public. None of the registered users identified themselves as data "aggregation" companies, he said.

"Usually, they're looking for data more than images," Taylor said.

Aaron Deslatte can be reached at or 850-222-5564.

Restoration of rights to 13 Florida felons to be re-examined

By Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

Published Thursday, September 24, 2009

TALLAHASSEE — Citing "mistakes" by the Florida Parole Commission, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink tried Thursday to revoke the unauthorized restoration of civil rights to 13 people, including a man who raped a minor.

But her colleagues on the state Board of Clemency, including Gov. Charlie Crist and Attorney General Bill McCollum, Sink's opponent in the 2010 governor's race, opted for a more deliberative approach and agreed to consider the cases at their next meeting in December.

State auditors uncovered the 13 cases last week in a report that faulted the Parole Commission for lapses in processing civil rights restoration requests.

"We probably ought to rescind those rights that were awarded," Sink said. In addition to a case of statutory rape that was not eligible for automatic restoration under the new rules, she said two other cases involved aggravated battery and that four felons failed to make financial restitution to their victims.

"We should look at them," McCollum agreed. "I don't think a decision needs to be made today, but it needs to be looked at." Added Crist: "I agree."

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, the fourth clemency board member, said the 13 cases were "an accident" and that he "would feel bad" if people had their civil rights stripped away a second time, especially if they had not committed new crimes upon release from prison.

The identities of the 13 felons at issue are unknown, even though they are eligible to vote, run for office or serve on a jury.

Most clemency records are confidential under state law, but the governor has the discretion to release records.

Crist, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said he had no plans to release the records. "I want to take the opportunity, as I said, I think the whole board wants to review the facts and wants to have the chance to be briefed additionally by staff, in my case by my general counsel, and make appropriate action."

The audit also said about 28,000 cases were delayed for more than two years because they were for felons whose crimes were in other states or in federal courts and unlike most civil rights petitions were not channeled through the Florida prison system.

Sink questioned Parole Commission Chairman Fred Dunphy after some petitioners at Thursday's public hearing said it took them six years to receive a pardon for their past crimes.

Dunphy said pardon investigations are the most complex and time-consuming. He defended his agency's performance, noting it has processed more than 200,000 cases in the 21/2 years since Crist spearheaded a streamlined system for felons to get their civil rights restored.

"This was a brand-new procedure, so we were kind of building as we went along," Dunphy said.

Noting that the 13 flagged cases out of a group of 203 represented a 6 percent failure rate, he said: "You might say the glass is 94 percent full."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.

Florida death-row inmate asks for new hearing on blood evidence

David Eugene Johnston alleges several witnesses gave false testimony at trial

Rene Stutzman

Sentinel Staff Writer

12:15 PM EDT, September 29, 2009

Attorneys for Orange County death-row inmate David Eugene Johnston today asked the Florida Supreme Court to order a new hearing about blood evidence.

Johnston, 49, was convicted of strangling and stabbing 84-year-old Mary Hammond in her Orlando home in 1983.

The governor signed Johnston's death warrant in April, setting off a new round of legal briefs. Today's filings are the latest.

After DNA tests this summer on crime scene evidence, Orange County Circuit Judge Bob Wattles concluded the results did not exonerate Johnston.

But in pleadings filed today, defense attorney D. Todd Doss argued that Wattles made a key mistake. Doss asked the Florida Supreme Court to order Wattles to hold a new evidentiary hearing.

According to Doss, the new tests proved that several state witnesses gave false testimony at Johnston's trial.

They told jurors that several pieces of clothing Johnston was wearing appeared to have blood on them – presumably from the victim.

But the new tests show that lab technicians could not find blood on many of those items, including Johnston's shoes, socks and shirt.

The Florida attorney general's office was working Tuesday on a brief, responding to the new issues raised by Doss.

Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel

The High Cost of the Death Penalty

The New York Times published an interesting editorial yesterday on the financial costs of death row. There are many reasons I can think of to abolish the death penalty (including that more than 135 people in the country have been exonerated from death row), but perhaps the millions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on executions will be the one to convince you.

The information in the article comes from the Death Penalty Information Center, which has conducted tons of research on the death penalty. One of the reasons that death row is so expensive is the appeals process, which can take up to 20 years or more. There are often several cases that go along with the death penalty, and each case requires new witnesses and a new jury that undergoes a careful selection process. Money is also spent on higher security of death row inmates. These costs, while all very expensive, vary from state to state.

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

California’s cost for death row is the most expensive of all at $114 million more than a life sentence. Each Cali execution costs about $250 million. California also has the largest number of inmates on death row in the U.S.

Why spend so much money on executing people, when that money could be spent on improving our law enforcement or put back into the community toward crime prevention? And especially towards the prevention of wrongful incarceration. It’s somewhat sad for me to think about Cameron Todd Willingham and how millions of dollars were spent to kill him…

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Out of prison, Anthony Caravella gets offers of help -- including for tattoo removal

Paula McMahon

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

4:12 PM EDT, September 15, 2009

Anthony Caravella is being offered help by people wanting to ease his way back into society after 26 years in prison.

One of the most unusual proposals came from a laser tattoo removal business that offered to get rid of two prison tattoos of tears on Caravella's face after staff read he regretted having gotten the memorials to his dead mom and sister.

"He needs a new fresh start and we thought maybe we could help," said Angie Amaro, a manager at Lasergenex Tattoo Removal Center in Pembroke Pines. She estimated the value of the removal at $1,800.

"That'd be nice," said Caravella, 41, of Davie, who was released from prison last Thursday after a lab test eliminated him as the source of DNA in a 1983 rape and murder in Miramar. He hopes to be formally exonerated soon.

More than a dozen readers have contacted the Sun Sentinel to offer Caravella a job, cash, clothing, restaurant and store gift cards.

South Florida opens arms for Caravella

THE ISSUE: Caravella finds support.

Sun Sentinel Editorial Board

September 22, 2009

If you have started to lose faith in your fellow man, if you have witnessed too much uncivil behavior lately, the saga of Anthony Caravella should give you a lift.

It was good enough that the 41-year-old Davie man got released this month from prison last week after a DNA test cast grave doubt on his conviction — and life sentence — for a rape and murder in Miramar in 1983.

But now South Floridians have been coming forth with offers to help Caravella try to start rebuilding his life after spending 26 years in prison for what appears to be a horrible crime he did not commit.

People who surely have their own economic problems these days have come forth to offer cash, clothing, shoes, gift cards, jobs, even removal of the tattoos that are memorials to his dead mother and sister. Other strangers have come forward with offers of Miami Dolphins gear and tickets for him and McDonald's gift certificates — even trips to Disney World.

Just as heartwarming have been the e-mails and calls from people in the area offering support, saying that Caravella's story — he has an IQ of 67, and his defense has claimed his confession was coerced and beaten out of him — has brought them to tears. Theyare happy that justice has seemingly prevailed, in part through the years-long persistence of his attorney, Chief Assistant Public Defender Diane Cuddihy, and Sun Sentinel reporter Paula McMahon.

The legal battle is not yet officially over, although a request has been filed asking a Broward judge to exonerate Caravella and permanently free him.

If and when that happens, it surely will take Caravella a while to get eased back into society. But thankfully, it appears that society is lot more welcoming to him than he might have imagined.

BOTTOM LINE: Many strangers offering help.

Convicted Stalker Gets Life Sentence

Woman Paralyzed After Bullet Pierced Spinal Cord
POSTED: Friday, October 2, 2009
UPDATED: 1:16 pm EDT October 2, 2009

Allan Sinclair
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A man convicted of conspiring to rape, kidnap and kill a Broward County woman has been sentenced to life in prison.

Allan Sinclair showed no emotion as Judge Marc Gold decided the prison term."I take no pleasure in doing this, but I have no problem with it," Gold said. "I sentence you to life in prison."

The victim, Christine Kent, wept in relief after the judge made the announcement.
"I have closure now, and for that I am grateful," Kent told Local 10's Terrell Forney.

By law, Sinclair could not have been sentenced to a prison term of less than 25 years.

The crime, which happened in August 2007, left Kent permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

Prosecutors said that Sinclair unexpectedly showed up at the home of his friend, Kent, a model and caretaker. Kent said that in the past, Sinclair had tried to be her boyfriend but she denied his advances.

"I hadn't seen him for three years," Kent told Local 10's Rob Schmitt. "He showed up out of the blue. He said he was in the area and thought he'd stop by and say hello."
But according to police, Sinclair went to Kent's home to kidnap, rape and kill her. When he pulled out a gun, Kent tried running out her front door, investigators said.
Sinclair opened fire, hitting Kent in the right foot and spinal cord, paralyzing her, prosecutors said. She has been in a wheelchair ever since.

After the shooting, Sinclair walked outside, investigators said, picked up the bullet casings, got into his SUV and ran over Kent, crushing her abdomen before driving away.

Neighbors said they were too frightened by the gunfire to go outside. A few minutes later, Sinclair, who thought Kent was dead, returned to the woman's home to try to hide her body. He dragged her behind the hedges in the yard and left, according to investigators.

Kent, however, survived the attack and was hospitalized for months.
Prosecutors said they believe Sinclair stalked the woman at her Oakland Park home before carrying out the attack.

Sinclair was convicted of attempted first-degree murder last January.

"I'm going to tell the judge that I believe justice should be served. I have been sentenced to a life in a wheelchair, of pain and suffering. He should be sentenced to life behind bars," Kent said Thursday.

At the sentencing hearing, Sinclair offered an apology to the woman he left for dead.
"I just want to say I'm sorry," said Sinclair. "I am guilty. I hope this does bring you the closure you need."

Kent, who now lives off of government disability, said she needs money for a wheelchair-accessible handicap van so she can leave her home.

Anyone who would like to make a donation to her cause can mail a check to:
150 N. Radnor Chester Road, Suite F-120
Radnor, PA 19087

Checks should be made payable to NTAF Southeast Spinal Cord Injury Fund. In the "memo" line write "In honor of Christine Kent."

Dogs sniff out wrong suspect; scent lineups questioned

VICTORIA, Texas (CNN) -- The interrogation room inside the Victoria County Sheriff's Office is sterile and cold. There's a table in the middle, a one-way mirror and a hidden video camera that lets investigators watch suspects.

Michael Buchanek knows the room well. He was part of countless investigations. Buchanek spent more than 25 years with the Sheriff's Office as a commander of operations.

But on March 16, 2006, Buchanek found himself sitting in the interrogation room. This time, he was on the other side of the table. The day before, his neighbor and friend, Sally Blackwell, was found strangled to death with a rope. Her body was left in a field five miles from her home.

Buchanek sat in the interrogation room with three homicide investigators, former brothers on the force. But the investigators were no longer friends. Buchanek was now the prime suspect in Blackwell's murder.

"They told me they knew I did it and that I was going to spend the rest of my life on death row," Buchanek told CNN.

The story of how a veteran law enforcement officer became a murder suspect is at the heart of a controversy over an investigative forensic tool called dog-scent lineups. Video Watch dog howl next to man's scent, see how lineup works »

The Innocence Project of Texas calls the practice "junk science that's being used by prosecutors and judges to convict people." The nonprofit group, which is dedicated to discovering and overturning wrongful convictions, wants state governments to ban the use of dog-scent lineups. It says an unknown number of people have been wrongly accused or convicted from the dog-scent lineups.

Supporters say dog-scent lineups are a powerful crime-fighting tool helping investigators crack cases across the country.

Buchanek was identified as a murder suspect, not because of crime-scene evidence but because of two bloodhounds, "Jag" and "James Bond."

The dogs belong to Fort Bend County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Pikett. He and his team of dogs have become celebrities in Texas law enforcement circles for their work on hundreds of cases across the state.

In Buchanek's case, homicide detectives in this county southwest of Houston had Pikett's bloodhounds sniff crime-scene evidence, such as the rope used to strangle the victim. The dogs matched the scent to Buchanek. Video Watch how an innocent man came under scrutiny »

Despite repeated denials, Buchanek lived under a cloud of suspicion for five months. His former Sheriff's Office colleagues believed the dogs over him and his pleas of innocence. But the dogs were wrong.

DNA evidence implicated another man, who pleaded guilty to the murder.

"It's left me with a pretty bad taste for law enforcement," Buchanek said. "It's pretty much ruined my life altogether."

Buchanek has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Pikett, the dog handler in Fort Bend County, as well as the Victoria Sheriff's Office and the Victoria Police Department. Buchanek is seeking unspecified damages claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he was falsely accused and that he suffered mental anguish as a result.

Pikett and his dogs have assisted in hundreds of investigations for law enforcement agencies across Texas. Pikett refused CNN's interview requests, but his attorney says Pikett is on the "cutting edge" of collecting dog-scent forensic evidence.

Buchanek accuses the investigators, including Pikett, of "leading" the dogs to his home because Buchanek knew the murder victim through work and church.

Pikett's attorney denies this. "The dogs were pulling him (Pikett)," said Randall Morse, the assistant county attorney in Fort Bend County who is representing the dog handler. "Pikett did not lead the dogs. The trail was valid."

Morse said Pikett is a respected officer of the law who has helped developed protocols for dog-scent lineups over the last two decades. "He's been accused 20 different ways of cheating; critics are trying to throw up smoke to get defendants off," Morse said.

Victoria County Sheriff T. Micheal O'Connor said dog-scent lineups, like other investigative aids, are a "vital tool in working toward a determination of a case." He opposes banning the technique.

"We will use them again if it merits this type of service," he said. "I feel they're credible. I've watched those dogs. I looked on in absolute amazement."

As for Buchanek's case, he said," We did the right thing, and the wrong person was not convicted."

Dog-scent lineups are similar to visual lineups; but instead of a witness picking a suspect from a group of people, bloodhounds walk along a line of tin cans containing individual scents from possible suspects.

Investigators get the scents from rubbing a gauze pad on someone's body or clothes, and that gauze pad is then placed in a tin can. The dog handler gives the bloodhound the scent they're looking for, and then the handler and animal walk down the line.

If the dog matches the scent, dog handlers say the animal will give a "sign," which is usually stopping at the can or barking.

The question over dog-scent lineups isn't isolated to Texas. The state attorney in Brevard and Seminole counties in Florida is reviewing 15 to 17 cases dating back to the 1980s. The cases involved forensic evidence provided by one dog handler and his bloodhounds. The Florida Supreme Court says Juan Ramos was wrongfully convicted of murder based on a dog-scent lineup.

Critics of dog-scent lineups say the problem is that dog handlers aren't certified or regulated and that there isn't a system in place to check a bloodhound's track record.

Steve Nicely is a professional dog trainer in Austin, Texas. He's trained police dogs for 30 years and is also an expert witness in Buchanek's case. Nicely argues there needs to be a system in place that tracks a dog's accuracy rate.

"There are no national standards," Nicely said. "Our standards are so lacking, it's pathetic. We should be ashamed of ourselves."