Jury issues shake up death sentences
BY KAUSTUV BASU
Anthony Welch and Willie Nowell, both convicted of gruesome killings, were sentenced to death row in 2006 in Brevard County.
Four years later, they're headed back to local courts -- likely this year -- for retrial or resentencing on orders of the Florida Supreme Court.
Of the 14 people from Brevard who sat on death row in the past five years, four have been granted new trials or had their sentences sent back for reconsideration.
Experts say that's not uncommon.
"That is because we are dealing with people's lives here," said Robert Bohm, a University of Central Florida criminal justice professor. "We have to make sure we got the right person and he did what he is accused of doing."
Welch will get a new "penalty phase" or sentencing as soon as August because the state's high court overturned his death sentence in 2008, citing a procedural error by a trial judge.
Nowell will get a retrial in as early as late fall because the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that a Hispanic juror was improperly dismissed during jury selection.
Wayne Holmes, chief of staff at the Brevard State Attorney's Office, said both of these cases are coming back on what he called legal technicalities.
"Both cases had jury-selection issues. The appellate court is saying the law was followed improperly," he said. "You might dot all your i's and cross your t's, but somewhere down the road, a new trial or sentencing phase might be authorized."
Welch, now 32, was found guilty in the December 2000 deaths of Rufus Johnson, 69, and his 66-year-old wife, Kyoko. Prosecutors said Welch beat them with a blunt object and also attacked them with Samurai swords hanging on their wall.
He wanted $5,000 from the couple, they said, who were former neighbors. When Rufus Johnson told him they didn't have the money, Welch started attacking them.
Court documents show said Welch cleaned himself in their bathroom, stole their truck and drove to meet a woman he was dating after the killings at the Pineda Crossings residence.
He was arrested a week after the deaths and faced two charges of first-degree premeditated murder.
Welch gets a new sentencing because the Florida Supreme Court said the trial court inappropriately allowed a juror to be rejected because of her gender.
Willie Nowell, 34, initially was found guilty in the slaying of Palm Bay resident Michelle Gill in June 2002, who was pregnant.
Police said Nowell and an acquaintance, Jermaine Bellamy, who was 20 years old at the time, broke into her Palm Bay house and shot Gill and her boyfriend, Kelvis Smith. The boyfriend survived the attack.
Bellamy, described as a follower and not a leader, was sentenced to life in prison in 2006.
The Florida Supreme Court gave several reasons for overturning Nowell's conviction, including:
Crosley Green was resentenced in September to life in prison, though he is likely to be eligible for parole in 20 years. He was convicted and sentenced to die in the 1989 killing of Charles Flynn Jr. of Titusville in an orange grove in North Brevard.
The Florida Supreme Court said it ordered the resentencing because the jury shouldn't have known about Green's record as a juvenile in New York.
The other case coming home involves George Porter, who will get his sentence reconsidered, though not until at least next year. Porter was convicted in the October 1986 killing of his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend in Melbourne.
The court ordered the resentencing because the jury didn't hear about Porter's mental-health issues.
Holmes said prosecutors know death-penalty cases are reviewed again and again, and they have to prepare for that.
"The death penalty is one area where the court is scrutinizing and changing the law as we go along," he said. "They keep changing the standards we are looking at. Not only do we have to meet current standards, we have to anticipate what the law will be 10 to 20 years later."
He cited the example of Bryan Jennings, who had three retrials and was found guilty each time. In 1979, Jennings kidnapped a 6-year-old girl from her Merritt Island home and then raped and killed her. Prosecutors say he has stayed alive by filing numerous appeals.
Holmes also said the opponents of the death penalty try to make those cases as drawn out and expensive as possible.
Professor Bohm agreed that death-penalty cases take up many resources, but he said higher courts often identify significant questions of justice.
"One of the misconceptions about these cases is that they are overturned because of legal technicalities and loopholes. Most of the time these are fundamental constitutional errors," he said.
Bohm cited a study at Columbia Law School that looked at cases between 1973 and 1995 and found reversible errors in nearly seven out of 10 death-row cases.
"More than 90 percent of states that administer death sentences have overall error rates of 52 percent or higher," according to a media release about the study.
David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said appropriate safeguards must be in place to protects the rights of inmates, "but we need to stop frivolous appeals."
He added: "There are some acts that are so morally reprehensible that the perpetrator deserves the death penalty."
Contact Basu at 242-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Chadwick Willacy, 42: Struck his neighbor over the head with a blunt object on Sept. 5, 1990, when she caught him burglarizing her Palm Bay home. Willacy tied her ankles and wrists, and fractured her skull. He then set her on fire.
-- Johnny Hoskins, 46: Raped and killed his 80-year-old neighbor in October 1992 after breaking into her house. Investigators said Hoskins confessed to assaulting the woman in her Melbourne home and drove her body to Georgia, burying it in a shallow grave.
-- Wydell Evans, 40: Shot his brother's 17-year-old girlfriend in October 1998 in a car after accusing her of cheating on his brother. Evans then forced the driver of the car to take him two other places before leaving the car. The girlfriend then was taken to the hospital, where she later died.
-- Randy Schoenwetter, 28: Broke into his friend's Titusville home with the intention of having sex with the friend's sister in August 2000. He stabbed the 10-year-old girl to death when she woke up and recognized him. He then stabbed and killed her father.
-- Robert Walker, 28: Convicted of kidnapping and killing a man he suspected of being an undercover drug agent in January 2003. Walker beat and shot the man before dumping his body in a recreation area near Palm Bay.
-- James Barnes, 48: Was serving a life sentence for killing his wife when he confessed to the 1988 rape and murder of a nurse. Barnes raped her, hit her head repeatedly with a hammer before setting fire to her mattress to conceal the evidence.Bryan Jennings, 51: Convicted three times for the rape and killing of 6-year-old Merritt Island girl in 1979.
-- Justin Heyne, 28: Sentenced to death in December in the March 2006 shooting deaths of two of his roommates and their 5-year-old daughter in Titusville as the result of an argument over money.