Sunday, February 28, 2010

Death penalty decision is costly on many levels

Grodin case shows complexity of issue

By Sam Cook">Get the latest dispatches from our investigative reporters by going to the Watchdog page.

Note: Today is the first of two columns looking at the death penalty cases of Lee County murderers Justin Grodin, Fred Cooper and Kemar Johnston.

Ray LeGrande has been police officer, prosecutor and defense attorney.

If the astute Fort Myers lawyer did a stretch in prison, the Oklahoma native would cover all of his bases.

“Only as a visitor,” says LeGrande, 73, of his time spent behind bars. “Never overnight.”

A lawyer for 49 years, including the last 28 practicing with wife Barbara in Fort Myers, LeGrande is an expert on capital punishment.

“The death penalty is on the way out,” LeGrande says. “It’s too expensive. It costs $51 million more than a life sentence.”

Death to the death penalty? Say it isn’t so.

“I’ve got all the respect in the world for Ray (LeGrande),” says Randy McGruther, chief assistant state attorney. “I’m not sure the death penalty is on the way out.

“Like a lot of things involving punishment, the pendulum swings back and forth.”

Much like a noose.

If Florida punished first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole, it would save $51 million annually, according to Palm Beach Post research.

Since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, the state has carried out 44 executions at a cost of about $24 million per termination.

Excluding Texas, where executions are as regular as vitamins, what other state bucks the nationwide trend like Florida?

• Nationally, the number of prisoners under death sentences decreased for the eighth consecutive year in 2008, says the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

• In Florida, however, the number of prisoners on death row increased six of the past eight years, says the Department of Corrections.

• Locally, the state attorney’s office secured convictions against high-profile murderers Justin Grodin, Fred Cooper and Kemar Johnston in the past 12 months, but the trio dodged death with sentences of life in prison.

“No, I can’t say that bothers me,” says McGruther about the state going 0-for-3 in capital punishment cases. “Justice has been served. That is our job: to go out and get the conviction.”

McGruther, who prosecuted Cooper, says the state presents its case for the death penalty, but the rest is up to jury and judge.

Of the capital cases, the most maddening was Grodin’s, a North Fort Myers man with a history of child abuse. It took nine years to put him away.

The body of Grodin’s 11-month-old stepdaughter Gretchen was found in the woods off Kenwood Lane in south Fort Myers on May 2, 2000.

Grodin was indicted in November 2000 and charged with first-degree murder in January 2001.

Lee Circuit Judge Lynn Gerald Jr. ruled Grodin incompetent for trial in 2005, but Judge Ed Volz Jr. ruled him competent in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Grodin, 36, was convicted June 17 last year and sentenced to life in prison Sept. 18.

He is incarcerated at Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, 30 miles west of Orlando.

LeGrande and John Mills were his co-counsel. Grodin refused to talk to them about his case, a further impediment.

Mills’ failure to communicate with Grodin after 25 to 30 attempts inspired this characterization:

“We’re basically dealing with a pet rock.”

With these factors going against the attorneys, why didn’t Grodin, the most loathed man in Lee County, get death?

“Grodin, obviously, did not have premeditation,” LeGrande says.

“Gretchen’s death was accidental or happened as a matter of force. Grodin also had mental difficulties.”

LeGrande says the judge, who overrode a 10-2 recommendation by jurors for execution, was the key.

“Judge Volz saw much more into this case than all of us did,” he says. “He had the courage to accurately find facts and accurately apply the law.”

LeGrande says Grodin’s case was not much different than child-abuse deaths today — with one major exception.

“The unusual thing was burying the body,” he says. “If Justin and Mary simply called and reported the death, it might have been classified as an accident.”

He says Medical Examiner Dr. Rebecca Hamilton determined Gretchen’s death could have been a result of her being dropped.

“But finding a child’s body buried in a residential area is a big story,” LeGrande says. “Her foot was sticking out of the ground and being chewed on by animals.”

Grodin’s doing.

An image that makes his crime unforgettable.

Wednesday, Assistant Deputy Public Defender Bea Taquechel and defense attorney David Brener discuss the cases of Fred Cooper and Kemar Johnston.

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