Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Woman takes plea deal


Krystal Harden, the second suspect in a 2006 case in which a Palm Bay man was murdered for about $100 and a car, will be sentenced in May to 40 years in prison.

She interrupted jury selection Monday in favor of taking a plea deal, prosecutors said.

Harden was facing trial on charges of first-degree murder and robbery with a deadly weapon for her participation -- along with her boyfriend, Deo Frazer -- in connection with the Oct. 8, 2006, death of 20-year-old Christopher Wiggs.

But, during jury selection Monday, prosecutors said Harden, 20, agreed to plead guilty instead to a lesser offense of second-degree murder and the original robbery charge.

Harden would have faced a mandatory life sentence if convicted at trial of the first-degree murder, whereas under the second-degree murder charge, the judge has discretion on handing down a sentence of anything up to life. The robbery charge also is punishable by up to life.

Sentencing is set for 8 a.m. May 6 before Circuit Judge Jim Earp at the Moore Justice Center in Viera.

"There's an inherent risk in all jury trials, and we weigh that against the evidence, and 40 years was a fair resolution of this case," prosecutor Susan Garrett said.

According to trial testimony heard earlier this year during Frazer's trial, Harden -- a longtime acquaintance of Wiggs -- lured Wiggs to her apartment at the Oakwood Villas in Palm Bay under the guise of an "early-morning rendezvous."

Frazer, hiding behind the bedroom door with a knife, slashed Wiggs nine times, severing his jugular vein, prosecutors said.

Wiggs' body was found dumped at a West Melbourne subdivision construction site.

Prosecutors said Wiggs, who investigators said was known to carry large amounts of money, also was robbed of his sneakers and jewelry.

Police became suspicious of the couple after Harden's aunt called police to say there was blood in her guest bedroom where her then-17-year-old niece and boyfriend were staying, and that the couple and a comforter -- which matched the one in which Wiggs was found -- were missing.

Meanwhile, upon notification of her son's death, Wiggs' mother reported that the green Nissan Altima she had lent her son was missing.

The couple were arrested after they were discovered with Wiggs' car in Miami.

In her confession to police, Harden admitted to helping plan the robbery, but denied having prior knowledge about the stabbing, Garrett said.

Frazer initially supported Harden's statement, Garrett said. But he recanted when he took the stand, saying Harden already had committed the murder when he returned home, but that he took the rap partly to protect her and partly because a detective allegedly threatened him with the death penalty if he didn't cooperate, attorneys said.

Garrett said there's no evidence Harden -- who denied any prior knowledge of or participation in the stabbing -- wielded the knife, but "she was an active participant in the robbery. Therefore, she is responsible for the death of the individual under the felony murder law."

Frazer, 23, was sentenced last week to two concurrent life sentences following a jury conviction on charges of first-degree murder and robbery.

(Source : www.floridatoday.com)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Report: Domestic violence worse amid recession

The Associated Press
6:22 AM EDT, March 30, 2009
TALLAHASSEE - A new report says domestic violence centers in Florida saw an almost 40-percent jump in demand last fall, an increase that experts say is related to the worsening economy.

Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon calls the situation "the worst I've seen in years."

The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence says in its report to the Legislature that when perpetrators are laid off, the severity and frequency of violent assaults increase because the perpetrators are home more often.

Experts say victims are also more likely to be trapped if family and friends are cash-strapped and unable to provide refuge.

State leaders have promised that even amid expected budget cuts, domestic violence funding will be protected.

Editorial: Closing the revolving door through education, training

An Associated Press dispatch the other day told of a new prison in Polk County.

The 350-man facility has a special mission — preparing inmates for “re-entry” to society.

That means education, job skills and substance-abuse rehabilitation.

The Florida prison system aims to halve its current population of 100,000 within five years.

Officials plan to do that by whittling away at the statistic that says one-third of inmates are back behind bars within three years — because they didn’t learn anything or change anything when they were in prison.

Short of giving up and merely allowing more criminals to go free, the fundamental concept of preparing inmates to succeed lawfully on the outside is worth a try. That is what all of us should want anyway.

Clerk's role key to integrity of court records

By Howard C. Forman

March 27, 2009

In a recent guest column, former Supreme Court Justices Ben F. Overton and Major B. Harding stated that Florida's clerks of the court do not serve as an independent check and balance on our courts. They are right. Independently elected clerks are not a check and balance on the impartiality of the judiciary, but on the integrity of the records. In that role, clerks provide an important public protection that should not be lost.

The clerk of court's role in protecting public records is written into the Florida Constitution and has been ratified by the voters twice in the past 40 years — once in 1970, when voters passed Article V of the Florida Constitution, and again in 1998, when voters adopted Revision 7 to Article V.

Judges are the ultimate authority over what happens in their courtrooms and the undisputed finders of fact in the cases they hear. It is appropriate and protective that a disinterested third party, independently elected by and answerable to the public — the clerk — maintains and protects the court records. This separation eliminates any possibility of wrongful recording of what occurs in a courtroom or a case.

The other issue raised by Justices Overton and Harding — that Florida "could save substantial tax dollars, particularly in this new electronic era," by embracing uniformity and electronic compatibility — ignores the fact that it is many judges themselves who have resisted uniformity and electronic access to the courts.

The clerks have repeatedly asked the Supreme Court for a uniform format for the preparation and transfer of information in an effort to realize the efficiencies and economies that come from standardization. The court has refused. For the past two years, the clerks have offered to create a statewide e-filing system at no additional cost to the courts. Not only would such a system save money for the courts and those who use it, but it would greatly enhance convenience for those who use the court and extend access to justice. Yet the courts have steadfastly opposed that offer.

There is good reason why Common Cause of Florida, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Florida Sheriff's Association all have weighed in against SB 2108/HB 1121 and in favor of preserving the important role of the clerk. The role of the clerk is protective of the public, and generally, we don't take away the public's constitutional rights without putting it to a vote of the people — even if the judges want it that way.

Howard C. Forman is clerk of the circuit court, 17th Judicial Circuit, Broward County.

Jury debates penalty in turnpike killings for 3rd day


— Returning on Monday for more deliberations, the jury determining the fate of two men convicted in the 2006 turnpike killings are now in their third day of penalty discussions.

The 12-member panel has now been deliberating for more than 14 hours to decide whether convicted killers Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., both 25, should face the death penalty, or be sent to prison for life.

The same jury on March 4 found both men guilty of armed carjacking and other firearm offenses in the deaths of Jose “Lou” Escobedo, 28, his wife Yessica, 25, and their two sons, ages 4 and 3, whose bodies were left along Florida's Turnpike on Oct. 13, 2006, in St. Lucie County.

Jurors began deliberating Thursday after hearing nearly two weeks of evidence during the penalty phase.

At trial, prosecutors said the killings were ordered by convicted drug kingpin Danny Varela, 28, for whom Troya and Sanchez worked as drug couriers.

Varela, a co-defendant at Troya and Sanchez's trial, was convicted of several drug and weapon offenses, but he was not charged with the murders.

Around 11:30 a.m., lunch was delivered to the jury at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach so they could continue their deliberations.

(Source: www.tcpalm.com)

Innocence Project of Florida helps free 7 wrongly convicted men


Innocence Project of Florida helps free 7 wrongly convicted men



By Helen Eckinger Sentinel Staff Writer
March 30, 2009

Joe Dillon holds a 1994 photo of himself, his wife, Traci, and his stepbrother William (right). Cleared of a 1981 murder by DNA evidence, William Dillon is seeking $1.35M in compensation from the state. (Ryan Pelham, Orlando Sentinel / December 5, 2007)

No one knows exactly how many people are behind bars in Florida for crimes they did not commit.

"Depending on whether you talk to people who are prosecution-oriented or defense-oriented, you're going to get widely divergent numbers," said Michael Seigel, a University of Florida law professor. "The criminal justice system does a pretty good job; there isn't widespread error. But there is error ... one person who is innocent and is in jail is one too many.

"That's where the Innocence Project of Florida comes in. Since its creation, it has helped exonerate seven men who, among them, were incarcerated for 144 years. Two were convicted of crimes in Central Florida — specifically, Brevard County: Wilton Dedge, cleared in 2004 of a 1981 rape; and William Dillon, cleared last year in a 1981 murder.

"When we exonerate someone, people say the system worked. The system did not work; the system failed," said Seth Miller, who directs the Innocence Project from Tallahassee. "These folks have been exonerated not because of the system but in spite of the system."

The Innocence Project was founded in 2003, in response to a deadline at the time that limited the time period in which convicts could seek DNA testing that might exonerate them.

Today, the project employs three lawyers, including Miller, an assistant director, a social worker, a part-time Web site and mail fundraiser, several part-time intake workers and several student volunteers.

Miller declined to release the project's operating budget, but said 95 percent of its funds come from grants from private foundations, and the rest comes from individual donors.

The project fields 300 to 500 requests a year to take on new cases.

"Everyone says they're innocent, so we have a pretty stringent screening process," Miller said. "It makes the best cases rise to the top

."The key restriction involves DNA. Although it is developing procedures for taking on non-DNA cases, the project now only takes cases with biological evidence that, if tested, could prove a convict is innocent.

Sixty to 70 percent of the requests are rejected because no DNA is involved — only about 10 percent of criminal cases yield DNA evidence, Miller said. Another 30 percent are nixed because the crime occurred out of state or in federal jurisdiction — the project only takes Florida cases.

If a case meets the initial criteria, the convict is sent a 13-page questionnaire about aspects of the case. If none of the answers eliminate the suspect, the project begins an extensive document collection process, gathering trial transcriptions, evidence logs and lab reports. Sometime it enlists the aid of its private investigator.

If the reviewer thinks the case has merit, it is presented to the project's legal team at a weekly meeting.

"We have pretty limited resources, so us taking new cases has to be a really measured and reasoned decision," Miller said.

In the Dedge and Dillon cases, DNA testing pointed the finger of guilt elsewhere.

Tests on semen samples from the 1981 rape in Sharpes showed that Dedge could not have committed the crime.

The turning point in the Dillon case occurred when DNA from two other people was found on a T-shirt saturated with the victim's blood.

Dillon won the right to a new trial, but prosecutors declined to retry him. Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said prosecutors are always ready to right a wrong when it is found.

"[T]he Innocence Project offers another avenue for bringing new evidence before the courts. So long as that information is accurate, reliable and proves innocence, it makes no difference where that information comes from," Wolfinger wrote in an e-mail.

The project is currently litigating on behalf of about a dozen inmates, including two from Central Florida: Thiamond King, who was convicted in 1991 of an Orange County rape, and John Day, who has been serving time since 1987 for a Brevard County rape.

It is also preparing to litigate on behalf of another dozen inmates, but Miller declined to release their names.After a client is exonerated, the project helps them find a suitable attorney to help the client seek compensation from the state.
Dedge received $2 million, and Dillon is seeking $1.35 million under a law passed last year that allows those exonerated to receive $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.The organization also does what it can to help its clients adjust to life outside prison.
The project's social worker begins working with clients while they're still imprisoned to chart a transition plan. It makes sure that its clients have a place to live when they're released and job prospects, and sets them up with vocational training if they're interested.
"What we want is when all the hubbub dies down they're able to meet their essential needs," Miller said. "It's not something like where we get them set up and send them on their way. It's an ongoing process.
"Helen Eckinger can be reached at 352-742-5934 or heckinger@orlandosentinel.com.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Turnpike murder case deliberates Monday


WEST PALM BEACH, FL -- After nearly 12 hours over two days, sentencing deliberations continue Monday for two men convicted of shooting a family on the side of Florida's turnpike.

Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez were convicted in the 2006 drug-related murders of Jose Escobedo, his wife, and their two young children.

Troya and Sanchez face either life in prison or the death penalty. The jury is scheduled to reconvene tomorrow morning at 9 am.


(Source : www.wptv.com)

Mentally ill could benefit from bill

By LLOYD DUNKELBERGER H-T Capital Bureau


Published: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.


Responding to the growing problem of mentally ill Floridians ending up in jails and prisons, lawmakers are moving forward on a sweeping initiative that will help better identify and treat those residents. Proponents call it one of the most significant rewrites of the state mental health law since the Baker Act was passed in 1971, reforming the way the mentally ill are committed for treatment.

Although the program is ambitious, it will start off on a small scale, with three pilot projects and will not require new state funding.

But advocates say it has the potential to save the state billions of dollars in the long term by improving the treatment of the mentally ill and keeping them out of costly prison beds or forensic treatment centers.

"This bill will without a doubt ensure a more fair treatment of people with mental illness. It will not only add fairness but effectiveness to the system," said Rep. Yolly Roberson, D-Miami, as the proposal was endorsed by the House Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council on Tuesday. "It's a win-win for all parties."

Miami-Dade Judge Steven Leifman, who has spearheaded the legislation as a special adviser to the state Supreme Court on criminal justice and mental health, said the proposal is designed to bring the state's handling of mentally ill citizens in line with new treatment systems that can help those residents avoid ending up in jails or prisons.

"We've pushed a lot of people into the criminal justice system that don't need to be there," Leifman said.

A 2007 report to the Supreme Court found on a daily basis there were about 70,000 Floridians with a serious mental illness who were in prisons or jails, or under some type of correctional supervision. The report said that annually more than 125,000 Floridians with mental illnesses were being booked into county jails.

"The vast majority of these individuals are charged with minor misdemeanor and low-level felony offenses that are a direct result of their psychiatric illnesses," the report found.

Leifman said the mentally ill prisoners were the fastest growing segment in the state prison system, saying a projection shows it could cost the state more than $3 billion over the next decade to build new prison space and maintain those beds for that population. The other escalating demand is being put on the state's forensic facilities -- where persons charged with a felony but deemed mentally incompetent are sent until they have recovered enough to stand trial.

Florida is now spending roughly $250 million a year on 1,700 forensic beds, which gives it the distinction of running one of the most costly systems in the country. At the same time, the state has been criticized by national mental health groups for being near the bottom when it comes to spending on mental health programs outside of the criminal justice system.

"We've deep-ended our system so poorly that there aren't enough resources to provide the level of services that we now know are required to keep people out of the criminal justice system," Leifman said.

The new bill aims to target people who can be diverted from the criminal justice system, while also providing better treatment for the approximately 6,000 inmates with serious mental illnesses who are released from prison each year.

About half of those inmates end up going back to prison, Leifman said. The measure has the support of key state agencies including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Corrections and the Agency for Health Care Administration.

DCF Secretary George Sheldon, who oversees the forensic treatment centers, said the current system does not make sense in that many felons who are sent to the centers spend enough time there in recovery only to be released back into the community for "time served" once they are deemed competent to stand trial.

Under the proposal, state officials hope to use some of the money now slated for the forensic beds for the upfront treatment initiatives, thus saving the state money in the long run. "It's a much more sensible use of money," Sheldon said. "What we're doing right now is the true definition of insanity."

Leifman said another advantage of the plan is that the federal government will pay a majority of the program's costs -- through the Medicaid -- as long as the mentally ill are being treated in the community and are not being sent into the criminal justice system.

The measure calls for pilot programs to be established in South Florida, the Tampa Bay region and the Pensacola area.

A similar bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, in the Senate.


This story appeared in print on page BN1

Friday, March 27, 2009

Jury to resume debate of death or life for killers of family on turnpike


WEST PALM BEACH — Jurors ended a second day of deliberations Friday without making a decision as to whether Ricardo Sanchez Jr. and Daniel Troya will spend life in prison or be put to death for the 2006 murders of the Escobedo family on Florida's Turnpike.

Prosecutors say Sanchez and Troya, both 25, killed cocaine supplier Jose Luis Escobedo, his wife and his two sons to steal the cocaine Escobedo was carrying and to relieve their boss, convicted drug dealer Danny Varela, of a drug debt.

Jurors were given three options before they began deliberating Thursday - unanimous life, unanimous death or a unanimous decision to let U.S. District Senior Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley determine the sentence. Life is the maximum penalty a federal judge can issue under those circumstances. If the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision, then sentencing will also fall to Hurley.

(Source: www.palmbeachpost.com)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jurors chose life in prison for McGee in brutal slaying of West Palm Beach grandmother


WEST PALM BEACH- — Jurors this morning rejected a death sentence for Wes McGee, a 23-year-old man convicted of murder for killing a West Palm Beach grandmother and attacking her grandson.

After deliberating for a half-hour, jurors recommended that McGee received life in prison for his role in the savage 2006 attack, to the disappointment of the family of his victim, Jane Tackaberry.

One of Tackaberry's relatives quietly sobbed after the verdict was read. Her family declined to comment afterward except to say that "it has been a long process."

Outside the courtroom, relatives of McGee said they were relieved that he would not face the death penalty, portraying him as a fundamentally good person who had been grown up in horrifying conditions and made a bad choice when he let a woman he met at a gas station convince him to join in her the attack on Tackaberry's house.

"When people have a rough life you can't just shut the door on them," said Margarita Pierre, McGee's cousin. "I'm very relieved."

Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams, who argued for the death penalty in the courtroom, said he was pleased with the jury's verdict.

"I've always tried to tell (Tackaberry's) family this is the best alternative," he said, explaining that a life sentence spares the victim's family the torturous years-long process of appeals and hearings that follow any death sentence. "In my eyes the jury made the right decision."

The sentence will be ultimately decided by Circuit Judge Sandra McSorley, but the jury's recommendation of life in prison effectively means he will not face the death penalty.

During the penalty phase of the trial, jurors heard that McGee suffered several mental and emotional disorders as a result of a traumatic childhood plagued by drugs and abuse. Defense attorneys contended that abuse, at the hands of his mother and others, should be considered when weighing his role in the stabbing death of Tackaberry in 2006.

The savage attacks occurred after McGee met Rhonda Norman while trying to sell her drugs and was persuaded to help her attack the house of her ex-boyfriend. There, they found Tackaberry and her grandson.

(Source : www.palmbeachpost.com)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Few inmates' lives end with execution

Sam Cook
scook@news-press.com

Mentioning the death penalty is like spitting grain alcohol on a fire.

The reactions of folks are immediate, impassioned and volatile.

"It bothered me to read that former slave states account for nearly all recent and planned U.S. executions,'' death penalty opponent Mary Lynn Canton of Fort Myers wrote in an e-mail to Gov. Charlie Crist. "That gave me a chill thinking about it. It should you, too.

"Stop signing these barbaric warrants.''

Capital punishment raised its controversial head March 5 when jurors recommended life in prison instead of death for Bonita Springs double-murderer Fred Cooper.

Cooper, 30, was convicted of killing Steven and Michelle Andrews in their Gateway home in December 2005. Judge Thomas Reese sentenced him to three consecutive life terms Monday.

Before Cooper became Lee County's most notorious murderer, there was Kevin Foster, the ringleader of the Lords of Chaos. Riverdale High dropout Foster killed band director Mark Schwebes, 32, in 1996 to avoid detection of vandalism by Lords of Chaos punks. Foster, 31, was sentenced to death in 1998.

One day after Cooper was whisked away to South Florida Reception Center in Dade County to prepare for his next residence, Foster's attorneys appeared Friday at a hearing before Judge Edward Volz Jr. to make a public records request in an 11-year appeal to save Foster's life.

The average length of stay on death row is 12.31 years prior to execution, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Fort Lauderdale attorney Paul Kalil is trying to find evidence of investigative or prosecutorial misconduct to file for post-conviction release.

The state Supreme Court upheld Foster's sentence in 2000.

Are Foster's lawyers grasping at straws?

"They're doing their job,'' said Assistant State Attorney Lise Plattner, who handles post-conviction cases. "There is going to be an extensive search for any other type of evidence that may not have come out in the original trial.''

For all the hoopla the death penalty conjures up, few inmates are executed.

One so far in 2009, two in 2008 and none in 2007. Twenty-six of the 67 total executions since the penalty was reinstated in 1976 came in 1984, 1990, 1998, 2000 and 2006.

In "Florida Defender'' magazine, Pete Mills, assistant public defender in Bartow, addresses a bloated death row.

"Even if execution increased to 12 per year, no less than 35 years would be needed to execute the current population,'' he wrote. "This number does not take into account ... people who would be newly sentenced to death or those who would die of natural causes while waiting.''

Nationally, the statistics favor death-row survival, says Dudley Sharp, death penalty resources director of Justice For All, a pro-death penalty advocate.

"Imposition of the death penalty is extraordinarily rare,'' he wrote. "Since 1967, there has been one execution for every 1,600 murders, or 0.06 percent.''

Opponents argue death-penalty inequity.

"The death penalty should be applied consistently - regardless of socioeconomic background, race, religion or gender,'' said reader Cassia Parker of Estero.

Her gender mention raises a curious question.

There are 393 prisoners on Florida's death row.

How many are women?

One.

Tiffany Cole, 27, was sentenced March 6, 2008, in Duval County for her part in a double murder of a Jacksonville couple that was buried alive.

Of the 392 men incarcerated Friday, 239 are white, 140 are black and 13 are listed as other.

Which begs the question: If men outnumber women 392-1, are judges and jurors impartially doing their job with the death penalty?

Further cutbacks in store for prisons

By Joe Follick


Published: Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.


There are more than 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons and 25,000 more expected in the next five years. Now, lawmakers are considering plans to further cut the programs that promise the best chance for long-term savings -- specifically, education and substance abuse programs.

Already pruned in recent years, those programs are intended to prepare inmates for life after prison and prevent their return to crime.

The cuts have heightened concerns that Florida's tough-on-crime laws -- including a mandate that inmates spend 85 percent of their sentence behind bars -- have become too costly and ineffective.

Even the head of the state's prison system says so.

"If you can't read, if you don't have any employable skills, if you have a substance abuse problem and you've spent three years in prison and you come out and you still have those issues, what the heck are you going to do?" said Depart of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil. "You're going to hit my mom or someone else's mom or somebody's child over the head breaking into someone's house. It is too costly to continue this uninformed way of trying to fight crime."

But efforts to provide alternatives to prison are finding little support in a Legislature where being called "soft on crime" is seen as a devastating insult.

Still, some try.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is sponsoring a bill that would provide funding for mental health courts, pre-arrest diversion programs, crisis intervention police teams and other means to treat drug addicts and the mentally ill instead of putting them in jails and prisons.

"It's the moral thing to do, it's the humane thing to do," Fasano said. "And it will save money in the long run. Law enforcement supports this."

But Fasano admits his bill, which has yet to find a sponsor in the House, has little chance of passing this year.

In the past two decades, Florida's prison population has grown by nearly 50 percent. Late last year, Florida became the third state -- along with California and Texas -- to have more than 100,000 people in prison.

Nearly 30 percent of the state's inmates are serving time for drug violations.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, added that imprisoning mothers and fathers who wrote bad checks or were simply with someone during a drug arrest rips apart families and costs the state too much.

"It has a lot to do with the Republican Party trying to protect their tough-on-crime image and they don't understand that what they're doing is a mockery of justice," said Wilson. "Having 100,000 people in prison is nothing to be proud of. It's outrageous."

Wilson and other Democrats say they have a study showing that hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved by allowing early release of inmates who are first-time offenders with less than two years remaining in their sentence who have had no disciplinary problems in prison.

But Sen. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, the chairman of the Senate criminal justice appropriations committee, said the 85 percent mandate is likely going to stay.

"I am confident that will not change, at least not in my lifetime," said Crist, who is no relation to Gov. Charlie Crist. "What we do have is an option to look at the front door and whether or not some of the sentencing" guidelines that were necessary 10 or 15 years ago are still necessary today.

McNeil withholds any personal opinions on whether allowing low-risk prisoners to leave before 85 percent of their sentence is complete would affect public safety. He said that his boss, Gov. Crist, has showed no sign of softening on that number.

"I can't gauge where that should be: 85, 90, 75. I don't know," said McNeil.

McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief, said he remembers when officers would see murderers back on the street just a few years after they were sent to prison.

"I don't know where the pendulum needs to swing, but I don't want to see it swing back to where we're releasing persons who committed those crimes," said McNeil.

It costs taxpayers more than $19,000 annually to house one inmate. That is almost equal to the total annual costs for an in-state student at the University of Florida, including meals, housing, insurance and tuition. Of the nearly 40,000 prisoners that will be released this year from Florida prisons, more than one-third will return to prison and most will do so within a few years.

Without the funding to increase re-entry preparation for inmates, McNeil is relying on more than 10,000 volunteers statewide to teach inmates. He has created two facilities, Baker Correctional Institute in northwest Florida and Demilly C.I. in Polk City, that focus on inmates who will live in those areas by preparing them with work skills and intense education.

Fran Barber, the DOC's deputy assistant secretary of institutions, said the volunteer-based programs draw from retirees, teachers and programs with sheriff's offices and community colleges. The agency's goal is to reduce recidivism, the rate of prisoners that return, from nearly 33 percent to 20 percent.

"We cannot continue to sit back and wait for funding," she said. "If we had it, we could do it quicker. But it is too important to wait."

Some senators listening to McNeil's worst-case scenarios last week, including the early release of 12,000 prisoners, were visibly stunned at the ramifications of the cuts. They also heard other agency officials say that 15 percent cuts ordered for the rest of the year by Gov. Crist for all state agencies would mean the end of the state's tracking of sex offenders and the closing of youth detention centers, which would move teenagers farther away from families.

"It is incredulous that we are at this point," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "I've been wondering why I couldn't sleep at night and now I really know."

Joyner said Gov. Crist, who earned the nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" for his tough-on-crime views as a senator in the 1990s, "has got to say, 'Wait a minute. What I said about being Chain Gang Charlie 20 years ago won't fly today,'" Joyner said.

"We are not saying let everybody go free and forget about public safety," Joyner continued. "But I don't want to be a person that's part of the demise of this great state."

Europe welcomes New Mexico's end to death penalty



Europe welcomes New Mexico's end to death penalty


STRASBOURG, France : Europe's human rights watchdog on Thursday hailed New Mexico's abolition of the death penalty as "a victory for civilization." Gov.




STRASBOURG, France: Europe's human rights watchdog on Thursday hailed New Mexico's abolition of the death penalty as "a victory for civilization."


Gov. Bill Richardson's enactment of a law replacing lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without parole foreshadows the end of capital punishment across the U.S., said Terry Davis, the secretary general of the 47-nation Council of Europe.


He called it a "courageous decision," adding, "14 U.S. states have abolished the death penalty, and several others are considering it. The tide is turning and the end of this cruel and inhuman form of punishment in the United States is only a matter of time."


As guardian of the European Human Rights Convention, the Council of Europe is the continent's primary human rights watchdog. It has long spearheaded European appeals to countries beyond Europe's borders — especially the U.S. — to ban capital punishment.


All European nations have banned or suspended capital punishment.


Since 1933, New Mexico has executed nine men — seven by electrocution, one by gas, one by lethal injection.


The state's life-without-parole sentence applies to crimes committed as of July 1.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Inmate programs may get the axe

Lawmakers are considering cutting education and substance abuse programs for rehabilitating prisoners. Lawmakers are considering cutting education and substance abuse programs for rehabilitating prisoners.

By Joe Follick
Staff writer


Published: Saturday, March 21, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.


TALLAHASSEE - With more than 100,000 inmates in Florida prisons and 25,000 more expected in the next five years, lawmakers are considering plans to further cut the programs that promise the best chance for long-term savings - education and substance abuse programs.

Already pruned in recent years, those programs are designed to prepare inmates for life after prison and prevent their return to crime.

While Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed maintaining the programs, lawmakers are facing a $6 billion budget hole that demands deep cuts in all public services unless they decide to raise taxes.

Like all agencies, the Department of Corrections has produced a plan for a 15 percent budget cut. DOC secretary Walt McNeil told lawmakers that such a cut would result in closing prisons and releasing nearly 12,000 prisoners.

That is extremely unlikely to happen. But McNeil also said that smaller budget cuts might mean reductions in probation officers, substance abuse programs and education programs.

"If you can't read, if you don't have any employable skills, if you have a substance abuse problem and you've spent three years in prison and you come out and you still have those issues, what the heck are you going to do?" said McNeil.

But the debate over re-entry programs is only part of a growing debate over whether Florida's "tough on crime" laws, including a mandate that inmates spend 85 percent of their sentence behind bars, have become too costly and too cruel.

Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said that imprisoning mothers and fathers who wrote bad checks or were simply with someone during a drug arrest rips apart families and costs the state.

"I think it has a lot to do with the Republican Party trying to protect their 'tough on crime' image and they don't understand that what they're doing is a mockery of justice," said Wilson.

"Having 100,000 people in prison is nothing to be proud of. It's outrageous," Wilson said.



Wilson and other Democrats are preparing a study that preliminarily shows hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved by allowing early release of inmates who are first-time offenders with less than two years remaining in their sentence who have had no disciplinary problems in prison.

But Sen. Victor Crist, R-Temple Terrace, chairman of the Senate criminal justice appropriations committee, said the 85 percent mandate is likely going to stay.

"I am confident that will not change, at least not in my lifetime," he said.

But Crist added that it may be time to look at easing sentences on non-violent crimes and reducing the influx of prisoners.

"What we do have is an option to look at the front door and whether or not some of the sentencing (guidelines) that were necessary 10 or 15 years ago are still necessary today," said Sen. Crist.

Jury To Decide Altersberger's Fate

By BRAD DICKERSON

Highlands Today

This jury will not decide guilt or innocence, but rather life or death.

Joshua Lee Altersberger, 21, opted out of having a trial when he pleaded guilty March 13 to shooting and killing Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nicholas Sottile on Jan. 12, 2007. Starting Monday, jury selection begins in Bartow anyway.

Since the state filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty for Altersberger, jurors still have to hear testimony to help them make a recommendation of whether he goes to jail for life or gets the maximum punishment.

Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin is limited on the evidence he is allowed to present starting March 30.

"There might be a very short opening statement the following Monday and then we are allowed to put on some witnesses to show what happened," Houchin said Friday. "We are limited to just the aggravating circumstances."

If the case had gone to trial, Houchin would have begun calling his 50 witnesses to the stand Monday. Since he is now limited on the evidence the state can offer jurors, he said there will only be three or four witnesses to talk about what happened the day of the shooting.

Houchin also plans to have between four and six family members and friends give victim impact statements during the penalty phase about how Sottile's death has affected them.

He added he is not sure how many witnesses the defense plans to put on, but said there are no limitations they have to follow. The testimony may take between two and three days, according to Houchin.

Once all the testimony is heard, the jury then deliberates and presents a recommendation to Judge Michael J. Hunter as to a punishment.

Altersberger will not be formally sentenced until a presentence investigation is conducted and another hearing scheduled.

A Remembered Officer

The Altersberger case may be nearing its conclusion, but those who knew Sottile, no matter how well, are still sharing their memories.

Lake Placid Police Chief Phil Williams said his few run-ins with Lake Placid native Sottile were usually at local eateries like Schooney's.

"I saw him eating with his wife a couple of times," Williams said. "I didn't know him on a personal basis like a lot of folks did."

Williams, however, said the 24-year FHP veteran was "well thought of" and had a "great family."

Death Sentence In '91 Slayings Upheld

@tampatrib.com

The federal appeals court in Atlanta has declined to overturn lower court decisions against a new sentencing hearing for Patrick Charles Hannon, condemned to die for cutting a man's throat and fatally shooting another in Tampa 18 years ago.

Thursday's opinion by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Hannon had failed to show ineffective assistance of counsel, the legal basis of his appeal. The defense strategy was to concentrate on Hannon's claim that he was not present at the scene of the Jan. 10, 1991, killings of Brandon Snider and his roommate, Robert Carter.

Snider, 27, and Carter, 28, were found in their apartment near the University of South Florida. Carter had been shot six times. Snider had been stabbed 14 times, and his throat was slit.

Hannon and Ronald Ivan Richardson, both slaughterhouse workers, were each charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Hannon was convicted in 1991 and is on death row.

27-Year-Sentence For Killing Boss

TAMPA - A Pinellas County man was sentenced to 27 years in prison after pleading guilty Friday to killing his boss and setting him and his vehicle on fire.

Jose Valdes, 32, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and arson charges in the death of Rafael "John" Garcia on July 31, 2006.

After the sentencing, Garcia's widow read a letter she wrote to Valdes.

"There aren't sufficient words in the dictionary that can express how much I despise you," Carmen Naboa told the defendant. "You are a murderer that robbed me of my peace; you robbed me of my life."

By accepting the plea, Valdes avoided a trial that was to begin Monday and could have resulted in the death penalty.

Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner said Garcia met Valdes at a St. Petersburg office to pay him. Valdes worked for Garcia's AA Cleaning Concepts Inc.

There was a dispute over money, Pruner said. Garcia was killed by a blow to the head.

Pruner said Valdes loaded Garcia's body into Garcia's car, then drove to a parking lot, where he doused the body and car with gasoline and ignited them.

Taped Beating Draws 15 Jail Days

BARTOW - Brittini Hardcastle, one of five girls charged in a 2008 videotaped beating of a Polk County teen, was sentenced to 15 days in jail Friday.

Hardcastle, 17, had pleaded guilty to felony false imprisonment and misdemeanor battery Jan 29 for her role in the March 30, 2008, attack on Victoria Lindsay. The five girls recorded the attack and planned to post the video on YouTube, the Polk County Sheriff's Office said.

The judge said Hardcastle would get credit for time already served; it was unclear how many days that left. She also was sentenced to three years of probation.

April Cooper, 14, Kayla Hassell, 15, and Brittany Mayes, 17, were previously sentenced to one year of probation. The organizer of the attack, Mercades Nichols, 17, was sentenced to three years of probation.

A staff report

Death-row inmate from Lake loses execution appeal

By Stephen Hudak

Sentinel Staff Writer

March 21, 2009

The state Supreme Court has rejected an appeal aimed at overturning the death sentence of an inmate convicted of murder at a Lake County prison.

The justices unanimously labeled as "meritless" the post-conviction arguments offered by lawyers for death-row inmate Allen W. Cox, 46, who also has an appeal pending in federal court that challenges the constitutionality of Florida's lethal-injection protocol.

Cox, who received his death sentence while serving life terms for sodomizing a convenience-store clerk and beating a burglary victim with a three-hole punch, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1998 slaying of Thomas "Venezuela" Baker Jr., 25.

Baker was stabbed in the prison yard of Lake Correctional Institution. With his dying breaths, Baker identified the assailant as "Big Al, Echo dorm, quad 3," a description that appeared to name Cox and his living quarters.

The latest appeal by Cox renewed his attacks on trial procedures, the competence of his defense lawyers, and the failure of the sentencing judge to adequately assess the roles that Cox's mental health and family history played.

The appeal also argued that Cox's state-funded lawyers — the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel — should be allowed to represent him and other death-row inmates in petitions that challenge the state's method of execution.

The high court rejected that argument, 4-2.

Cox contends Florida's lethal-injection protocol is unconstitutional because the rules shield the identities of the state's executioners, which prevent a condemned prisoner from determining the executioner's qualifications and training.

Cox claims that an unqualified executioner increases the chances that death will be painful and unconstitutionally cruel.

The Florida Supreme Court has consistently rejected that argument, though it has been raised recently by lawyers for other condemned prisoners, including Richard Henyard, 34, who was executed last year for the 1993 murders of two Lake County girls, Jamilya and Jasmine Lewis.

Investigators said Cox killed Baker because he thought Baker had stolen $500 in contraband cash from his cell.

Cox previously had argued that he was wrongfully convicted of Baker's killing, saying many of the state's witnesses were untrustworthy and unreliable. Some were inmates on psychotropic drugs because the prison has a 180-bed mental-health section.

Cox had demonstrated his anger about the theft the day before the stabbing when he stood on a second-floor railing of his prison dorm and announced he would pay a $50 reward to anyone who could give him the thief's name. He vowed to kill the thief.

Court records say an inmate known as Dancing Willie gave Baker's name to Cox.

Stephen Hudak can be reached

at shudak@orlandosentinel.com

or 352-742-5930.

Capital Punishment: Bill limiting death penalty use advances in Maryland


Capital Punishment: Bill limiting death penalty use advances in Maryland


By KATHLEEN MILLER

• Associated Press Writer

• March 20, 2009


ANNAPOLIS — A measure that would limit the use of capital punishment in Maryland inched closer to becoming a law Friday after a House of Delegates committee voted to advance the bill.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 14-7 to support restricting the use of the death penalty to murder cases with biological evidence such as DNA or conclusive videotaped evidence. The bill now advances to the House floor.


Gov. Martin O’Malley had backed a full repeal of the death penalty, but told the House Committee this week that the compromise represented “progress.”


A divided Senate approved the legislation earlier this month in hopes of settling the matter for the session. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who supports capital punishment, has said compromise is as far as the Senate will be able to go.


House committee members rejected at least a dozen attempts to amend the legislation, including proposals to allow the death penalty when there is a signed murder confession or an audio recording of the murder.


Several Republican committee members alleged their colleagues were both kowtowing to the wishes of O’Malley and afraid to amend the bill and set up a clash with Miller.


“Our obligation is to think about what we’re doing and vote on the merits of the bill and not on the dictates of some political figure in another branch of government or in another house,” said Delegate Michael Smigiel, R-Cecil. “This House has to stand individually and we’re not.”
Even some Democrats expressed outrage at how the bill had arrived in the committee.


Delegate Kathleen Dumais, D-Montgomery, said Miller’s “do it my way or else” approach was an “abomination,” but she supported the measure because it comes “as close to repeal as possible.”
“When you get down to what happens as a result of it, it is almost a repeal and I’m going to vote for the bill,” Dumais said.


Delegate Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat and the vice chairman of the committee, said “orders did not come down from above” to him and he does not believe the executive branch told anybody else how to vote on the bill.


“This is the most profound issue we will deal with as members of this legislature,” Rosenberg said. “I respect the process by which everyone has come to their decision, and I think we all need to respect that process and our individual beliefs and our individual motivations.”


Maryland has five men on death row. Five inmates have been executed since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Wesley Baker, the last person put to death, was executed in December 2005.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Walton County Man Faces Death Penalty if Convicted

State Attorney Bill Eddins reports the State’s Attorney’s Office has decided to seek the death penalty on the two counts of First Degree Premeditated Murder.

This involves the case were Dannie Roy Baker shot two and wounded three in the early morning hours as a group of Chilean nationals were gathered at a south Walton town home. The Walton Grand Jury returned indictments against Baker Wednesday.

Suspect admits to killing officer


By Jason Geary
The Lakeland Ledger


Published: Friday, March 20, 2009 at 6:30 a.m.


BARTOW — A 21-year-old Sebring man pleaded guilty Friday to the shooting death of Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Sottile in 2007.

Joshua Lee Altersberger accepted responsibility for the killing even without a plea deal in place and the possibility of the death penalty still looming over his head.

“I just feel that it’s time for me to man up and take care of my responsibilities,” Altersberger said.

He said he spoke with his lawyers and decided to plead guilty to first-degree murder.

“It was my choice,” Altersberger said. “And I made that choice.”

The case will now move into a penalty phase, with lawyers presenting evidence and arguments about whether Altersberger should be executed or receive life in prison.

A jury must still be chosen to recommend whether Altersberger should die for the trooper’s slaying.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday.

Circuit Judge J. Michael Hunter must give the jury’s recommendation “great weight” under Florida law.

Altersberger was driving erratically on Jan. 12, 2007.

Sottile, 48, attempted to conduct a traffic stop on Altersberger near Lake Placid.

Altersberger told his passenger that he was going to shoot the trooper. The passenger ran away, and Altersberger shot Sottile when he approached the driver’s side window, according to prosecutors.

A large-scale manhunt ensued in Highlands County to find Altersberger. He was arrested the following day.

Notable new and helpful thoughts on the capital concept of closure

From the BLOG : Sentencing, Law and Policy :

Notable new and helpful thoughts on the capital concept of closure

I just noticed this interesting-looking new piece on SSRN by Jody Lynee Madeira, titled "Why Rebottle the Genie?': Capitalizing on Closure in Death Penalty Proceedings." Here is the abstract:

Closure, though a term with great rhetorical force in the capital punishment context, has to date evaded systematic analysis, instead becoming embroiled in ideological controversy. For victims who have rubbed the rights lamp for years, inclusion in capital proceedings and accompanying closure opportunities are perceived as a force with the potential to grant wishes of peace and finality. Scholars, however, argue for rebottling the closure genie lest closure itself prove false or its pursuit violate a defendant's constitutional rights. In order to effectively appraise the relationship of closure to criminal jurisprudence, however, and thus to decide whether and to what extent closure is an appropriate adjudicative goal, it is necessary to more thoroughly investigate the concept and develop a theory of closure.

This article provides an argument against rebottling the closure genie, a task not only seriously implausible but unsound under principles of communicative theory. Proposing that closure is an authentic cultural and communicative construct that has become indelibly linked to capital proceedings, this article advocates a shift in focus to more practical questions.

This article first summarizes how legal scholarship has described closure up to this point, and then examines how courts utilize the rhetoric of closure to effect change for victims' families in a variety of contexts. It then reviews widespread scholarly opposition to utilizing criminal law to pursue therapeutic ends. Thereafter, this article seeks to broaden the contemporary understanding of closure by exploring how members of one victim population -- Oklahoma City Bombing victims' families and survivors - have described closure in intensive face-to-face interviews.

These reflections provide the foundation for theorizing closure as a communicative concept composed of two interdependent behaviors: intervention and reflexivity. While intervention is an interpersonal component that urges victims' families to take action to effect change and pursue accountability, reflexivity is an intrapersonal component that nudges them to contemplate and work through grief, emotion, and trauma after a loved one's murder.

Finally, this article considers the pragmatic ramifications of applying a communicative theory of closure.

Because I have long thought that the concept of closure has been over-used and under-examined in capital punishment debates, I am looking forward to finding time to read this piece closely. I suspect, however, that this important new foray will not give me closure on the concept of closure in capital cases.
March 20, 2009 at 10:38 AM

Solving crimes using fingerprints is an inexact science


Opinion


Solving crimes using fingerprints is an inexact science


Although it is accepted that prints are unique, courts continue to have questions about using them to make IDs

.
By Jason Felch

March 20, 2009

When Thomas and Ann Farrow were found murdered in their paint shop, their heads crushed with a blunt object, the only clue was a bloody right thumbprint on the store's empty cash box.The brazen murder shocked the people of Debtford, a sooty industrial suburb of London. They clamored for police to find the killer.

The year was 1905. Forensic science was in its infancy. Scotland Yard had only recently begun collecting carefully pressed fingerprints from criminals, stashing the cards in pigeonholes of a makeshift filing system.But Scotland Yard Inspector Charles Collins believed that the bloody print could help him solve his crime. After learning that a man named Alfred Stratton had been seen near the crime scene, he collected the unemployed ruffian's thumbprint and compared it with the one left at the crime scene. A close inspection showed there were 11 minute features that the two prints shared.The prosecutor at Stratton's trial told jurors the similarities left "not the shadow of a doubt" that the crime-scene print belonged to Stratton.


But the defense had a surprising ally at their table: Henry Faulds, a Scottish doctor who two decades earlier was the first to propose using fingerprints to solve crimes.


Faulds believed that even if fingerprints were unique -- there was, after all, no scientific basis for the popular assumption -- the same was not necessarily true of "smudges," the blurry partial prints accidentally left behind at crime scenes in blood, sweat or grease.


A single bloody thumbprint, he felt, was not enough evidence to convict anyone of murder.


Stratton's trial would be the first test of the new science of fingerprinting, and it raised concerns that, more than a century later, still have not been addressed.


Today, fingerprints are once again on trial.


In 2007, a Maryland judge threw out fingerprint evidence in a death penalty case, calling it "a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible."


The ruling sided with the scientists, law professors and defense lawyers who for a decade had been noting the dearth of research into the reliability of fingerprinting. Their lonely crusade for sound science in the courtroom has often been ignored by the courts, but last month it was endorsed by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.


The question is not whether fingerprints are unique -- most scientists agree they probably are, though that assumption remains largely unstudied. The issue is whether the blurry partial prints often found at crime scenes -- what Faulds called "smudges" -- are sufficient to identify someone with any reliability.


The answer: No one knows. There are no national standards for declaring a fingerprint "match." As a result, fingerprint identifications are largely subjective.


For ages, people have marveled at the immutable ridges, arches, loops and whorls embedded in every fingertip. Believing them unique, ancient Babylonians pressed their fingers into wet clay tablets to sign legal contracts.


But it was not until the 1880s that Faulds discovered their utility as a forensic tool. He had begun cataloging the curious impressions when someone stole alcohol from his laboratory, according to Colin Beavan, the author of a book about Faulds and the Stratton trial.

Faulds used the fingerprints left on the glass vial to identify the culprit -- the first known use of latent prints to solve a crime.


But by the time of Stratton's trial in 1905, fingerprinting had moved from the realm of scientists to that of police agencies.Faulds was sitting silently at the defense table, Beavan wrote, stewing bitterly. The limitations of his technique were being ignored.


"The least smudginess in the printing of them might easily veil important divergences ... with appalling results," Faulds wrote in a book that year. Police were "apt to misunderstand or overstrain, in their natural eagerness to secure convictions."


His warnings were ignored. Jurors took just two hours to decide Stratton's fate, with the fingerprint as the only piece of evidence linking him to the crime. He and his brother were hanged 19 days later.


The concerns Faulds raised would go unanswered and largely ignored for decades as fingerprints became definitive proof of identity. What had started as a hypothesis for 19th century scientists became an article of faith for forensic scientists and the courts in the 20th century, says Michael Saks, the author of several articles on the social history of identification sciences.


When fingerprints were first used in an American court in a 1920 Chicago murder trial, a juror told reporters that "fingerprints and fingerprints alone convinced us." Ever since, experts have claimed their power to eliminate any doubt.


That air of certainty soon carried over to other emerging forms of forensic identification. Handwriting, shoe prints, tire tracks, bite marks -- all were asserted to be reliable identifiers, based largely on faith and police experience rather than any rigorous scientific study.


Even the hard science of DNA evidence gained credibility in its early days by calling itself "genetic fingerprinting."Even today, fingerprint experts present their conclusions as nothing short of certainty. Many testify that fingerprinting has an error rate of zero. Few judges have been willing to question such statements, fearful of contradicting a century of legal precedent.


Only recently, with the advent of DNA evidence, have the "appalling results" that Faulds warned of begun to come to light.


In 2004, the Boston Police Department was forced to shut down its fingerprint lab after a "glaring mistake" led to a wrongful conviction. That same year, the FBI's top fingerprint analysts were forced to admit that they were wrong after claiming to be "absolutely confident" that a fingerprint had linked a lawyer in Oregon to the Madrid train bombings. The Los Angeles Police Department is now reviewing nearly 1,000 fingerprint cases after an internal review that found two people had been wrongfully accused by fingerprint "matches."


If the National Academy report succeeds in forcing the courts to ponder questions first raised a century ago, Faulds, who went to his grave in 1930 still angry that the limits of "smudges" were being ignored, might finally rest in peace.


Jason Felch has written extensively about forensic evidence, especially DNA, for The Times.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Ralph De La Cruz: Turnpike murders renew death penalty question

Ralph De La Cruz | Columnist
March 19, 2009
The question of guilt has been answered in the federal courtroom in West Palm Beach.

A jury already has found Ricardo Sanchez Jr. and Daniel Troya guilty of the cold-blooded assassination of a family alongside Florida's Turnpike in St. Lucie County.

But that may be an easier conclusion to reach than whether the taking of two more lives is justified for the death of four.

Capital punishment is an issue that many of us have grappled with, that evokes almost as much passion as abortion. Death, in any form, is never easy to argue for or justify. It's personal and painful. Perhaps as it should be.

I lost my commitment to nonviolence Feb. 23, 1996, while chatting with a bitter, broken man inside a Winnebago parked outside a motel in Marin County, Calif.

I had just witnessed the execution of William Bonin, who was known as the Freeway Killer. It's thought that Bonin may have killed as many as 36 boys and young men.

Actually, "killed" is too antiseptic for what Bonin did. He would grab boys — the youngest was 12, most were 14, 15, 16 — throw them in his van and drug them. Then, he'd sodomize the victim as he strangled him. The bodies were thrown out of Bonin's van as he drove along Southern California's highways.

After being caught, Bonin told police that if they hadn't caught him, he would have continued torturing and killing.

Bonin confessed to 21 of the abductions, rapes and murders, and was found guilty of 14 of them. He was the first person executed in California by lethal injection.

The man I was speaking with in the Winnebago was the only person to have survived Bonin. He was being assaulted when police arrested the homicidal psychopath.

He told a reporter he wouldn't attend the execution, opting instead to drink champagne and blast the rock standard Highway to Hell as Bonin took his last breaths.

As soon as Bonin turned blue and I filed my column, I went looking for him. It took an hour, but I found his Winnebago.

"So," I asked the man as we sipped champagne, "does his execution bring you closure? Do you feel safer? Relieved?"

"No," he answered. "But at least when they're sitting around playing cards now, I won't be the punch line to his jokes."

It had been reported that Bonin had a long-running card game going in prison with two other serial killers. The three were thought to have killed more than 100 people.

That's when I changed my mind about the death penalty.

For my entire life I had been the one who argued I didn't want anybody killed on my behalf. That it was more costly to execute someone, because of the extensive appeals, than keep him imprisoned. That a life in prison could be more punishment than dying.

All that began to fade during Bonin's extremely respectful execution. By the time the champagne in my cup was gone, so was my opposition to capital punishment.

I came to the conclusion that in cases where there's absolutely no doubt someone has brutalized and murdered, I'm fine with ending the murderer's life.

I'm not talking about Texas-type zip-zapping. The Lone Star State has killed 435 people since 1976. A scary pace considering that 120 Death Row inmates have been released because of things such as DNA evidence and improper legal procedures. And that in 2003, Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 Death Row inmates after Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions found patterns of inequality based on class and race.

Even here in Florida, where 67 people have been executed since 1976, then-Gov. Jeb Bush suspended executions at the end of 2006 over concerns that there may be problems with the lethal-injection procedures.

California continues under a court order suspending the kind of execution I saw, also because of procedural concerns.

So, I understand how torn the federal court jury must be as it listens to arguments about the fate of Sanchez and Troya this week.

It already found the two guilty. But how sure is this jury, really? And does this crime reach the level of brutality that each of us measures in trying to assess what merits a public killing?

I'm glad it's not my call.

If jurors choose death, it will be only the fourth federal execution since the feds broke a moratorium in 2001 with the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The last federal execution before McVeigh's was March 15, 1963.

And it would be sort of a South Florida redux. The U.S. government first executed someone Aug. 17, 1927, hanging James Aldermon ... at the Broward County Click here for restaurant inspection reports Jail in Fort Lauderdale Is your Fort Lauderdale restaurant clean? - Click Here..

Ralph De La Cruz's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Local section and in Sunday Lifestyle. He can be reached at rdelacruz@SunSentinel.com, 561-243-6522 or 954-356-4727.

Death penalty rift in states continues

Gov. Bill Richardson’s decision Wednesday (March 18) to repeal New Mexico’s death penalty and replace it with a maximum sentence of life without parole is being hailed by supporters as a major victory in the decades-old debate over state-sanctioned executions.

But the decision—which follows New Jersey’s repeal in 2007 and brings to 15 the number of states that do not execute inmates—also underscores the nuanced modern landscape of capital punishment.

While a growing number of states are seriously considering eliminating the death penalty—whether for moral, fiscal or political reasons—others are trying to reinstate or expand it. At the same time, the United States is on track to put more inmates to death this year than in any year since 1999.

Recent political developments have highlighted the complex and highly regional approaches to the death penalty:

State senators in Montana will hold a key committee hearing March 25 to consider joining New Jersey and New Mexico as the only states to repeal the death penalty legislatively (rather than through court action) since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976. Montana’s House of Representatives already has approved the bill, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D)—who, like Richardson, has backed capital punishment in the past—has said he is keeping an open mind and may sign it.

In Maryland, state lawmakers are working on a compromise that could sharply limit when prosecutors can seek the death penalty. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), an outspoken critic of capital punishment, had sought an outright repeal this year.
In a handful of other states, including Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire, repeal legislation has been seriously considered this year, with proponents gaining new traction by arguing that costs of the death penalty are too high for financially strapped states.

Elsewhere, supporters of capital punishment are mounting their own campaigns:

In Alaska, which abolished the death penalty in 1957, Gov. Sarah Palin (R), the speaker of the state House of Representatives and others are pushing to re-establish it.

In Georgia, some state lawmakers are trying to allow death sentences to be imposed on defendants even if juries do not unanimously agree. The action comes after a quadruple murderer recently was spared from the death penalty because three of 12 jurors did not agree to the ultimate punishment.

In Nebraska, where the state Supreme Court struck down the electric chair as unconstitutional last year, Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and others have pushed back against repeal efforts and instead are promoting legislation that would establish lethal injection as the state’s method of execution and allow death sentences to be carried out again.

In Virginia, the General Assembly has sent Gov. Tim Kaine (D) a bill that would expand capital punishment, including by allowing the state to execute those who assist in a murder but do not personally carry it out. Kaine, however, opposes the death penalty and has vetoed a similar measure in the past.

Perhaps most significant in the short-term picture of capital punishment is that the United States is on track to execute some 80 inmates this year—the most in a decade.

Twenty inmates already have been executed through the first three months of 2009, including 12 in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. Seven other Southern states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia—also have carried out death sentences this year.

The spate of executions reflects what experts have characterized as a temporary uptick in the death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year upholding lethal injection procedures used in Kentucky. All executions nationwide were put on hold while the high court considered the case; as a result, 37 inmates were put to death nationally in 2008, the fewest since 1994.

“I think what we’re experiencing is the post-lethal injection surge that was bound to come,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Dieter noted that death sentences nationally have declined from about 300 annually in the mid-1990s to about 100 last year, and he said he expects use of the death penalty to decline over the long term.

While the present-day picture of capital punishment differs sharply from state to state—and from year to year—experts on both sides of the debate say New Mexico’s repeal highlights a growing divide between the states that use the death penalty and the states that don’t.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., noted that the states in which repeal legislation has gained the most traction in recent years—or where it has passed—rarely execute prisoners in the first place.

New Mexico, for instance, has only two inmates on death row, and the state has not executed anyone since 2001. (In an unusual twist, Richardson said during a press conference last night that he will not commute the sentences of the state’s two death-row inmates. The decision potentially sets the stage for a future execution in a non-death penalty state.)

In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) repealed a death penalty the state had never used, and only eight inmates were on death row.

In Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska and New Hampshire, where death-penalty repeal legislation has been seriously debated this year, a combined 29 inmates sit on death row.

In contrast, Scheidegger said, “I don’t see any serious chance of repeal in those states that are actually using the death penalty.”

Texas is by far the national leader in executions in the modern era of capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The Lone Star State has executed 435 prisoners since 1976; it is followed by Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida.

Contact John Gramlich at jgramlich@stateline.org.

Jury finds southwest Fla. man guilty of executing 2 teens in 2006 over drugs

WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. —
A southwest Florida man faces the death penalty after a jury found him guilty of killing two teenagers in 2006.

Luc Pierre-Charles was convicted Wednesday night on two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Derek Pieper, 17, and Raymond Veluz, 18.

Prosecutors say Pierre-Charles was a drug dealer who had been selling to Pieper, a fellow classmate at Wesley Chapel High School. Prosecutors say Pieper snitched on him and to get revenge Pierre-Charles and another man put the victims in the back of their car, drove them to a remote road and executed them.

A lawyer for Pierre-Charles says other suspects were also responsible for the killings.

___

Information from: The News-Press, http://www.news-press.com

Florida's Turnpike slayings defendant has below average intelligence

By Vanessa Blum

South Florida Sun Sentinel

5:41 PM EDT, March 18, 2009

WEST PALM BEACH

A West Palm Beach man found guilty of killing a family alongside Florida's Turnpike has below average intelligence but could determine right from wrong, a defense mental health expert testified Wednesday.

Ricardo Sanchez Jr., 25, is fighting for his life at a death penalty hearing in federal court in West Palm Beach, along with co-defendant Daniel Troya, 25.

On March 5, both men were found guilty of armed carjacking resulting in the deaths of Luis Escobedo, 28; his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25; and their sons, Luis Julian, 4; and Luis Damian, 3.

The four bullet-ridden bodies were found in a heap at the side of the road in St. Lucie County on Oct. 13, 2006.

Sanchez's attorneys have portrayed him as a simple-minded follower who did the bidding of his cousin, a local drug dealer.

Daniel Grant, a Georgia psychologist, said Sanchez scored a 77 on a clinical IQ test, compared to an average of 100.

A score below 70 could indicate mental retardation, Grant said.

But prosecutor John Kastrenakes focused on Grant's conclusion that Sanchez could tell right from wrong.

"Because you have an IQ of 80, doesn't mean you are bound to commit a life of crime does it?" Kastrenakes asked.

Earlier, defense lawyers played a videotaped interview with Sanchez's 6-year-old son, Ricardo Sanchez III.

The smiling boy sat on a sofa and drew pictures as a woman off camera asked questions:

"Where's your daddy, Ricardo?"

"At jail."

"How does that make you feel?"

"Sad."

Prosecutors say Sanchez and Troya murdered the Escobedo family to settle a drug debt and deserve to die for their crime.

Defense attorneys argue that life in prison with no chance of release is sufficient punishment.

The sentencing phase of the trial continues Thursday, and the jury is expected to begin deliberations next week. The jury's finding must be unanimous and is binding on judge in the case.

Vanessa Blum can be reached at vblum@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4605.

Guilty verdict in Wesley Chapel teen murders

By Molly Moorhead, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, March 18, 2009


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DADE CITY — After he killed two teenagers in a merciless execution over a piddling amount of money and dope, Luc Pierre-Charles started talking.

He talked about how he made the victims beg for their lives.

He bragged about how he emptied his gun into their backs.

He even demonstrated how he did it.

Pierre-Charles, who was arrested last fall in the July 2006 killings, faced trial this week. Prosecutors had little physical evidence but found enough witnesses to recount, under oath, what he'd told them about the last moments of Derek Pieper's and Raymond Veluz's lives.

And on Wednesday evening, after five hours of deliberations, a jury found Pierre-Charles, 21, guilty of two counts of first-degree murder.

A crowd of nearly 50 friends and family cried. On the other side of the courtroom, Pieper's mother, Susan Wood, wept, too.

"Justice was served," she said.

Pierre-Charles faces either life in prison or the death penalty. His sentencing is scheduled for this morning.

Authorities say Pierre-Charles was a drug dealer who guarded his turf with paranoia and intimidation. On July 27, 2006, Pieper, 17, a student at Wesley Chapel High School, was at a party where his friend Veluz, 18, asked him to help him buy marijuana. Even though Pieper had told friends and family he was growing afraid of Pierre-Charles and his associates, that's where he turned that night to score drugs.

The last time witnesses saw the teens alive, they were in the backseat of Veluz's car. Pierre-Charles was driving. Tyree Jenkins, who has also been charged in the killings, rode shotgun.

Pieper's and Veluz's bodies were discovered the next morning, face down on a dusty road, their backs sprayed with bullets.

Prosecutors said Pierre-Charles believed Pieper had snitched on him to other drug dealers. Veluz, they said, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The boys were robbed of about $60 and a small stash of marijuana.

Four witnesses took the stand for the state during the eight-day trial and recalled what Pierre-Charles had told them.

Angel Brooks was the closest thing to an eyewitness. She was with Andre Pierre-Charles, the defendant's younger brother, the night of the killings. She testified that Andre got a call from Luc, and in the background she overheard Luc telling the boys to get on their knees and pray.

When she saw Luc the next morning, she said, he talked and demonstrated how he killed them.

"What did he say?" Assistant State Attorney Manny Garcia asked her.

"I held the gun like this, and I emptied the whole clip," Brooks said.

"Tyree was standing there," she added.

"Was he laughing?" Garcia asked.

"Yes," she said.

"They thought it was funny?" Garcia asked.

"Basically."

Brooks was the girlfriend of Jeremy Henry, a known criminal and friend of Pierre-Charles who was initially suspected in the murders. Henry was found dead weeks later. Authorities have arrested a man who said Luc and Andre Pierre-Charles paid him to kill Henry, fearing he would soon go to the police.

Witness Anthony Harris testified that he was working as a confidential informant in 2006 when he saw Luc Pierre-Charles at the home of another drug dealer.

"He said he unloaded numerous times in the back of one boy's head," Harris testified. "And he said Tyree unloaded in the other boy's head."

Asked why, Harris said: "I guess they be wanting a rep — a reputation in the streets as being the man in the streets," he said. "That's how it is."

Defense attorneys sought to discredit the state's witnesses as jailhouse snitches who told evolving stories and pushed their own agendas. They pointed the finger at Henry and Andre Pierre-Charles, using cell phone records to show calls that night between Pieper and Andre.

Perhaps the strongest testimony for the state came from John Booker Blanford. He said he helped Luc Pierre-Charles — his cousin — dispose of the gun used in the murders, tossing it into a lake.

The reason for the bloodshed, according to Blanford: "He and Tyree wanted to bag their first bodies."

Outside the courtroom, where security was heavy, defense attorney Lane Lastinger comforted Pierre-Charles' family and told them not to lose faith. His father, Luc Sr., cried and said, "I know my son didn't kill nobody."

Lehigh Acres man accused of raping, killing stepdaughter has last hearing

By AMY BENNETT WILLIAMS
awilliams@news-press.com

Alberto Hernandez, accused of raping and killing his 13-year-old stepdaughter, was in court today for what attorneys say should be the last hearing before his case goes to trial March 31.

Hernandez, 41, is facing the death penalty, charged with first-degree murder, sexual battery on a family member and aggravated child abuse in the 2006 death of Michelle Fontanez.

At the hearing, defense attorney Neil McLoughlin asked for the second time that the trial be moved out of Lee County — this time, he said, because The News-Press posted online a social worker’s interview with Michelle, in which the girl said Hernandez had been abusing her for years.

“The public availability of this sensitive and confidential recording further compromises the chances of the defendant receiving a fair and impartial trial from the potential jury pool within the 20th Judicial Circuit,” McLoughlin argued.

Judge Edward J. Volz denied the request, but left open the possibility that he might reconsider during jury selection.

Michelle died Feb. 23, 2006, days after Department of Children and Families officials sent her home, although she’d told them Hernandez had been sexually abusing her for years.

The News-Press later obtained a videotaped interview — the one McLoughlin cited at the hearing — of Michelle speaking about being abused.

In it, she told a social worker from the Child Protection Team, which DCF consults with on severe abuse cases, that Hernandez had been abusing her since she was five.

Although that social worker told DCF investigator Erica Cesare that Michelle was afraid to go home and might hurt herself, Cesare responded: “Not my problem.”

DCF sent Michelle home. The only provision it made for her safety was asking Hernandez to leave. He moved across the street, then returned to rape and smother Michelle while her mother was doing an errand, arrest reports said.

Four months after Michelle’s death, DCF fired Cesare and two supervisors.

Michelle’s aunt, Renea Fontanez, who lives in Massachusetts, said she’s ready for the ordeal to end.

“So many people failed Michelle,” she said. “The state of Florida could have prevented all this from happening, if people did their jobs. Yes, they may have lost their jobs but in the long run, we lost a lot more.

“They can get other jobs. We can’t have Michelle back.”

Trooper killer pleads guilty

By TOM STAIK
Published:
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 10:46 AM EDT
Staff Writer

Three days before jury selection was scheduled to begin in his trial, murder suspect Joshua Lee Altersberger changed his plea to guilty in the roadside shooting death of Florida Highway Patrolman Sgt. Nicholas Sottile.

Attorneys for Altersberger, 21, alerted prosecutors at noon Friday that their client intended to plead guilty, according to Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin. The hearing was held around 3:30 p.m., at the Polk County Courthouse in Bartow before Judge Michael J. Hunter.

"He made a short statement where he said, 'I'm doing it because I wanted to take responsibility and man up to what I did,'" Houchin said. "I think we had such a strong case that he did not want to go through the trial."

Altersberger shot and killed Sottile during a traffic stop alongside an orange grove on northbound U.S. 27 just north of Lake Placid in southern Highlands County. Sottile, a 24-year veteran of the state’s trooper corp, stopped a 2003 Toyota Camry driven by Altersberger for traffic violations.

His passenger, Quintin Jerome Kinder, of Bainsbridge, Georgia fled after the vehicle stopped.

Officials say, Altersberger fired several shots at the officer as he stood by the passenger window of the car and then fled the scene on foot.

Sottile was able to make several frantic calls for help on his police radio, and died a short time later at Florida Hospital Lake Placid after undergoing emergency surgery.

“(Altersberger) said he wanted to kill a cop,” Kinder later told investigators with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after he and Altersberger were found after an all-night manhunt. Altersberger was found more than 20 miles away at a Sebring home. Kinder was located in a grove near the shooting scene.

Kinder was charged with trespassing in a grove and transferred to Bainsbridge, Georgia to serve violation of probation charges. Georgia officials inadvertently released the man, but the star witness in the Sottile murder case was quickly recaptured.

Despite the change in plea, the state attorney’s office still intends to seek the death penalty.

Jury selection has been slated March 23. Jurors will begin to hear testimony on the events of Jan. 12, 2007 on March 30 to decide if the sentence should be life in prison or death.

New Fla. prison's goal is to send inmates home and keep them from re-offending

By JESSICA GRESKO

Associated Press Writer

Warden Rod James sticks his head into a classroom at his prison. Inmates in pale blue uniforms are sitting behind desks doing math problems. James has a pop quiz.

"What are we trying to do here?" he says, asking not about the math problems but the prison.

Trying to make sure inmates don't return to prison, one man says. Getting an education, another says. True, but James hasn't heard what he wants to hear.

"Change," another man says.

That satisfies the warden. He asks the same question of inmates all over the prison — in a substance abuse class, in a chapel, in a computer class. He gets the same answer: "change," ''change," ''change."

Inmates may say they're trying to change, but the prison James heads, Demilly Correctional Institution in Polk County, is a change for the state. The 350-person, all-male facility, which will have an opening ceremony Friday, is the first Florida prison to focus on "re-entry" or reintegrating prisoners into society. Other states, including California, Kansas, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, also have re-entry programs.

Almost 90 percent of Florida's nearly 100,000 prisoners will be released at some point. But a third will also be back within three years. The point of Demilly, a former juvenile facility, is to help bring that rate down. And the Department of Corrections' overall goal is to halve the number of ex-prisoners returning to lockup within the next five years. They're working on another facility like Demilly near Jacksonville and plan at least two more around the state.

"We are embarking upon changing the mind-set of the way we in our state deal with inmates that are being released," said Department of Corrections head Walter McNeil.

Officials believe by taking prisoners with three years or less remaining on their sentences and by concentrating education, mental health and substance abuse resources on them, they will be less likely to re-offend. Inmates at the state's 130-some prisons get similar services. But there are often waiting lists. Or prisoners may get classes early in their sentences instead of right before being released, when a life skills class would be more helpful.

At Demilly, the message is clear even to new inmates, who have been arriving at the facility for the last few months as it slowly ramped up. Every Tuesday, when new inmates arrive by bus around 9 a.m., the warden meets them. He asks them to raise their hands if they've been to prison more than once. Almost all do. Then he asks them to raise their hands if they want to come back. None do.

Inmates say the facility is different. Inmates are housed in dorms and classified as medium security and lower. One man said that on previous trips to prison he had to work until the last day, but at Demilly he was being given time to finish his education.

Warden James, meanwhile, demands the inmates treat staff and each other with respect, saying it's practice for life outside. The same goes for dress and personal hygiene.

"That's not going to work for me," he tells an inmate wearing a hole-studded, long-sleeve shirt under his prison uniform.

James knows some people will be skeptical. The state says the approach isn't any more or less expensive, but why bother focusing on people who have shown a pattern of returning to prison? James says people should instead hope the method works. That would mean fewer crimes committed and fewer taxpayer dollars going to new prison construction. Last year, the state estimated it would need to build 19 new prisons at a cost of $100 million a prison over the next five years.

"If we can stop the growth," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger, "then we'll be able to stop building."

Plessinger said Demilly isn't modeled on any other state and the department will be monitoring it closely. Seeing whether the program is a success could take a few years, however. Warden James has asked his staff to track the men who come through Demilly and wind up back in the system.

Realistically, he knows some will. Already one inmate has tried to have a visitor smuggle marijuana into the facility.

"Will some people re-offend? Yes. Will some people stay out of prison? Yes," he said. "I just hope the latter number is higher than the first."

Demilly inmate Jason Canady, 28, says he's ready to change. This is his third time in prison, and he has 19 months left on his 3-year sentence for cocaine possession and trafficking.

He says getting out this time will be different. He has applied to a cooking program that will start soon at Demilly, and he hopes to ultimately work in his uncle's soul food restaurant.

"I'm leaving here with education," Canady said. "I don't see myself coming back."

___

On the Net:

Florida Department of Corrections: http://www.dc.state.fl.us/

Feingold Reintroduces Bill To Abolish Federal Death Penalty



FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 19, 20093:11 PM

Zach Lowe or Katie Rowley - (202) 224-8657


Feingold Reintroduces Bill To Abolish Federal Death Penalty


Feingold’s Longtime Effort Comes as New Mexico Repeals Death Penalty


WASHINGTON - March 19 - As momentum builds in states to abolish the death penalty, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold reintroduced legislation today to abolish the death penalty at the federal level. Feingold's Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act of 2009 would put an immediate halt to federal executions and forbid the use of the death penalty as a sentence for violations of federal law. The use of the death penalty has been questioned by a range of prominent voices across the country, recently repealed in New Mexico and New Jersey, and abolished by 123 countries around the world. Feingold's bill would stop executions on the federal level, which are part of a death penalty system that has proven to be ineffective, wrought with racial disparities, and alarmingly costly.


"I oppose the death penalty because it is inconsistent with basic American principles of justice, liberty and equality," Feingold said. "Governor Bill Richardson and the New Mexico legislature's action to abolish the death penalty in that state adds to the growing momentum behind ending the death penalty in this country. It is truly unfortunate that we are in a shrinking minority of countries that continue to allow state-sponsored executions."


Feingold is not alone in his opposition to the death penalty. A range of prominent voices have questioned the system in recent years, including former FBI Director William Sessions, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, law enforcement officials and many others across the political spectrum. In 2007, only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan executed more people than the United States.


In 2007, Feingold chaired a Senate Judiciary Committee, Constitution Subcommittee hearing on oversight of the federal death penalty that highlighted the lack of transparency at the Department of Justice in the decision-making process about the death penalty and continuing problems of racial disparities in the federal system. Also in 2007, the American Bar Association called for a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment based on its detailed study of state death penalty systems, which found racial disparities, convictions based on bad evidence, grossly inadequate indigent defense systems, and a host of other problems with the implementation of capital punishment in this country.
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Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org
URL to article: http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2009/03/19-21