Tuesday, April 20, 2010
By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel
7:33 PM EDT, March 24, 2010
TAVARES — Jurors weighing the fate of an Orlando twin charged in a double murder in Eustis gave up tonight and will return to work in the morning.
Dante Hall, 25, could face the death penalty if convicted of the murders of Anthony Bernard Blunt of Mount Dora and Kison Evans of Tavares, who were shot to death at a house party in Eustis by masked intruders. Police detectives say Hall and his identical twin brother, Donte, were two of the assailants.
Jurors paused from their deliberations about 4:30 p.m. to ask Circuit Judge T. Michael Johnson whether the panel had to agree that Dante Hall was in possession of a gun at the crime scene.
At least three of the intruders showed guns, one of which was an AK-47 that sprayed bullets around the party house.
The question suggests the jury doubts Hall's alibi that he was gambling and selling drugs in Orlando.
Neither Assistant State Attorney Bill Gross nor defense lawyers John Spivey or Michael Graves would speculate.
Both victims were guests at the party house on Gottsche Avenue known as "The Valley."
Donte Hall's stripper-girlfriend, Angel Glenn, had been hired to perform at the men-only party and helped conspire to rob the guests of money, jewelry and drugs that were on hand, Eustis police detectives have said.
Jurors sat through five days of testimony and argument in the latest trial.
The judge has enforced rules of evidence that prevent the lawyers and witnesses from telling the jury panel the verdict in the other twin's trial.
Dante Hall testified Tuesday that he was not in Eustis on the night of the killings, but that his brother had borrowed his car with his cell phone in it.
Gross told jurors that Hall's testimony was self-serving and not credible.
Prosecutors and Eustis police used cell phone records in an effort to show that Dante Hall accompanied his brother and two other men, who have not yet been charged in the killings, in the deadly home invasion and robbery.
The records document calls between Hall and his girlfriend, Kim Jones, originating from the area of the crime scene. Hall, a reputed drug dealer in Orlando, also called at least one of his regular customers that night.
Glenn, 22, who also is facing murder and conspiracy charges in the killings, has testified that both brothers were in the house, masked but armed. She said she recognized their voices.
Glenn has received limited immunity to testify.
She and two girlfriends fled the party half-naked when the shooting started.
Stephen Hudak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-742-5930.
TALLAHASSEE — In the complex network of state and national issues, one of the many challenges the Catholic bishops of Florida have is monitoring public policy matters, at both the state and federal levels. That is why they found it imperative to establish the Florida Catholic Conference (FCC) in 1969, to help them with research, planning and action on key issues affecting Catholic social teaching.
“Staff members at the conference are tasked with monitoring proposed legislation and state regulations and analyzing its moral dimension, as well as impact on the common good,” said D. Michael McCarron, executive director of FCC. “Every proposed policy is looked at through the lens of Catholic social teaching to see how it may work against or promote human dignity and protect human life.”
To learn more about the principles of Catholic Social Teachings, click here.
Within the framework of his office, McCarron is surrounded by Bible quotes. He jokes that he must be pretty insecure to have so many reminders staring at him. Among them is “Lord, may everything we do begin with your inspiration, continue with your help, and reach perfection under your guidance.” McCarron is anything but insecure and fully confident in the FCC staff that handles all areas of concern when it comes to the legislative environment and preparing needed information for the bishops.
“Generally the staff identifies the major issues and likelihood of consideration by the Legislature or regulatory bodies and recommends a prioritization to the bishops,” said McCarron. “Public policy positions of the Florida Catholic Conference always reflect full concurrence of the board of directors, i.e., the bishops.”
In situations where Church teaching is clear, or if past board positions provide clear precedent, a position is recommended to the board. McCarron said the meter for taking a position on proposed policy is to ask: “Does this bill demean or build up human dignity? Does it attack or support life?”
“The principles inherent in the seven themes of Catholic social teaching and the public policy statement of the Florida Catholic Conference serve as a guide to positions taken,” said McCarron.
HEALTH AND EDUCATION
With the health care reform bill a very present and ongoing area of concern, Michael Sheedy, FCC director for health, has had a busy year. On his computer screen are purposes that outline the mission of the FCC health desk, including in summary: promote communication between health ministries and bishops; promote collaboration among health ministries; advance and protect interests of health ministries in the public sphere. Above it to the right is a portrait of “Christ the Teacher,” surrounded by family pictures, holy cards and many quotes. While the health care reform bill presents many wording problems that go against the protection of life, Sheedy is pleased with the headway FCC has been able to make in other areas.
“Great progress has been made in increased protection for life, most notably Women’s Right to Know Act, Parental Notice of Abortion Act, Women’s Health and Safety Act, Partial Birth Abortion Ban and state funding of pregnancy support services,” said Sheedy. “The bishops’ support for educational choice was very instrumental in passing the Opportunity Scholarship Program (stricken by the Florida Supreme Court), the McKay Scholarship Program, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten system are other areas in which the conference was involved.”
Sheedy also gives examples of issues FCC fought against, helping to prevent the passage of bills that would have been problematic. FCC also worked to bring about change in systems that make the lives of the poor more manageable.
“We had a role among many others who could be considered lead organizations in legislation to further streamline Florida’s KidCare program to facilitate entry for eligible kids and families,” said Sheedy. “That was a priority for several years and many provisions we sought went into law last year. Our involvement helped bridge what had been perhaps a ‘partisan divide.’”
LIFE, DIGNITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
While technology has made Sheila Hopkins’ job a whole lot easier, her full plate would be better described as an overflowing table. As director for social concerns/respect life, Hopkins represents FCC on issues of human life, dignity and social justice before the legislative and executive branches of government and private organizations. Through the State Pro-Life Coordinating Committee, she works with the diocesan respect life directors. Hopkins also staffs the Committee Against the Death Penalty and the committees of Farmworker Justice, Prison Ministry and Immigration. And then in her spare time, she initiates legislative networking with various groups, monitors and participates in the state appropriations process, and coordinates legislative and advocacy projects throughout the state.
“For all of us, I think the greatest challenge is managing our time. For most people today, the daily wave of e-mails is overwhelming at times but our work in public policy requires us to keep abreast of what is happening in the state as well as nationally,” said Hopkins.
With her table full of duties, Hopkins, like other FCC directors, relies on her faith to direct her. On her desk is the Bible quote from Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” She has memorized the verse, but often reads it as well when a reminder is needed as to who is in charge.
“Being rooted in our faith is what keeps us sane,” said Hopkins.
The challenge of FCC directors, Hopkins confirmed, is being present when bills are scheduled in meetings that are all in the same time block. Life bills take priority and after consulting with the bishops, FCC directors assess where their presence would make a difference.
“Building relationships with legislators is critical so you can have honest conversations and establish trust,” said Hopkins.
“Even if they do not agree with the Florida Catholic Conference on all issues, legislators have a respect for where we stand on moral issues.”
ABC’S OF FCC
James Herzog’s role as FCC’s associate director for education, can be broken down into key areas under the broad topic of education. He follows the motto, “Never underestimate the power of a kind word or deed.” His spectrum of duties includes public policy, governmental issues (state and federal), federal aid/title programs and accreditation. He also serves as a staff resource person to the Florida bishops, the FCC and superintendents for Catholic schools in Florida, and represents Catholic education to the Department of Education, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other government or religious entities.
Within a given school year, issues related to the health, safety and welfare of students can quickly surface. A big part of his job is keeping a pulse on short- and long-term issues such as enrollment trends, keeping prekindergarten to 12th grade schools viable in these difficult economic times. “Another big way to impact schools is via my interactions with lawmakers,” said Herzog.
The toughest part of Herzog’s job is managing accreditation for the 188 Catholic schools in FCC’s program. At present they are searching for an accreditation program manager to take on this task.
Communication on all fronts is obviously very important to FCC. To get information out on important matters, be it for the sake of moving people to action or educating them about upcoming legislation or passed bills, Michele Taylor, associate director for communications, relies on every available modern-day method to reach the Catholic faithful and others of good will. By working closely with diocesan communication directors, Taylor is able to communicate information directly to pastors who are encouraged to pass the information to parishioners via Sunday bulletin or Mass announcement.
“We also work to keep secular and Catholic media informed in hopes of getting our messages out through daily newspapers, and in particular, diocesan magazines and newspapers, such as the Florida Catholic,” said Taylor.
Taylor also relies on the FCC Advocacy Network (http://tinyurl.com/fccadvocacy), an electronic e-mail newsletter of short- and long-term proposals that need action from the Catholic community. This method proves most effective when it comes to communicating messages related to the ever-changing and fast-paced reality of public policy.
“Through the network we are able to send alerts at a moment’s notice that will reach members instantly. The system also provides a platform for individuals to send targeted messages regarding pending legislation to their elected officials,” said Taylor.
The FCC Web site (www.flacathconf.org) also serves as a good resource and is continually updated with fresh news and information.
“Last year we took our first step into the growing world of social media by establishing a Facebook page,” said Taylor. “Approximately six months later we have nearly 1,000 fans, many of whom were not being reached through more traditional forms of communication.”
CALLING ON THE DEPUTY
And of course, every company needs someone to be the “Mr. Wizard,” so to speak, who takes care of the business basics. For FCC, that’s Ken Roeder, deputy director for administration. Roeder’s responsibilities include development and management of budgetary documents, internal control policies, personnel records, administrative files, equipment inventories, building and financial management. He also coordinates completion of special projects and is considered the “go-to” person for anything that has to do with building management and employee care.
As a cancer survivor, Roeder feels very fortunate to be working for FCC since 1991 and finds inspiration not only in the FCC family, but also Psalm 95:7-8 — “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
“To me,” said Roeder, “that means always being open to God speaking to me through whatever means (be it) another person or the beauty of my surroundings.”
Through the years, the FCC team has accepted that they can’t change the minds of people in one swoop. It takes time and often baby steps. By remaining patient FCC has been able to accomplish much.
“Politics is the art of compromise,” said McCarron. “It is a legitimate strategy to work for incremental change that will bring about good, or limit the bad result from existing policies.”
It will not be possible in the short term, McCarron stated, to abolish the death penalty or do away with abortion. However, major progress has been made in both of these areas through incremental changes in public policy, for example, the ban on the execution of the mentally retarded or on those who committed their crimes while a juvenile. Another change to death penalty legislation FCC hopes to see some day will be the requirement for a unanimous jury recommendation before death sentence can be handed down. Likewise in the arena of pro-life legislation, all of the pro-life bills passed in the last 20 years have added protections for pregnant mothers and have led to a decline in the rate of abortions in Florida.
“Pope John Paul II addressed this question of incrementalism (belief in advocacy of change by degrees) in his great encyclical ‘Evangelium Vitae,’ the Gospel of Life, in saying ‘when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well-known could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality,’” said McCarron.
Another quote, McCarron has on his desk is, “He who kneels before God can stand before any man.” Knowing the serious work the bishops have entrusted to FCC directors, McCarron is grateful that for many years the FCC staff has been gathering at 3 p.m. each day to pray and kneel before God. It is not mandatory, but each day seven to 10 people participate in the daily readings and close with prayer for special intentions. Some days everyone is there and everyone sees the value in this ritual of gathering two or more in prayer. “I think the time we take for spiritual community has been very helpful to our work,” said McCarron. “No one is forced to participate, obviously, but it is my sense that everyone sees value of it. One of our three mottos is, ‘Prosper the work of our hands, O Lord (Ps 90:17).’”
Pocono Record Writer
April 11, 2010 12:00 AM
Imagine your worst nightmare.
You're accused of a ghoulish murder, sentenced to die in the electric chair — and you are innocent. It happens — it happened to Juan Melendez, and at least 138 others.
The League of Women voters invited Melendez, 59, to speak Saturday morning at the Hughes Eastern Monroe Public Library in a program about the death penalty.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly is considering two bills, each calling for a moratorium on the death penalty and authorizing a study of its fairness in the state. "It's the first step to abolishing it," said league president Julie Dougherty.
At the age of 32, Melendez was accused of brutally murdering Delbert Baker on Sept. 13, 1983. Baker was the owner of a beauty school in Auburndale, Fla., in the central part of the state.
Baker had been shot three times — and his throat was slashed. The crime scene was drenched with blood. Baker had been robbed of cash and the jewelry he was wearing.
Melendez was fingered by a police snitch — David Luna Falcon, someone who himself faced murder charges and bartered his freedom to roll on Melendez.
Melendez is a skilled storyteller, mixing his narrative with passion, humor and self-deprecation. Despite a thick Spanish accent, his warmth was hypnotic, his voice rising and falling, at ease before the mostly female audience. But his anger surfaced as he described the circumstances of his conviction.
Falcon approached police and said Juan Melendez confessed the crime to him. The two men were acquaintances, but not friends.
Falcon was paid a $5,000 reward for turning Melendez in, and also received probation for the other murder charge. Melendez was convicted despite an alibi witness and without any physical evidence against him.
Falcon also said another man was involved in the crime — John Berrien, a friend of Melendez. Under the threat of the electric chair, Berrien gave police a bunch of false statements — including statements that incriminated himself in the crime. He said he took Melendez and his cousin to the beauty school, dropped them off, came back an hour and a half later and picked him up.
A jury convicted Melendez in 1984 after a one-week trial — very quick by capital standards, according to defense attorney Judi Caruso, an anti-death penalty advocate.
Melendez ended up on death row at Raiford Correctional Institution. His jailers took him to a 6-by-9-foot cell. It was cold, dark, and infested with rats and roaches.
"I thought I was a macho man, but I was scared. I was scared to die," he said.
Every day was a challenge. Correction officers would put Melendez's breakfast through the small slot in the cell door. He had to get out of his bunk within five seconds — "or else, forget about it. The roaches beat you to it. They were waiting for the breakfast, too," he said.
He had pen pals who showed him love and compassion. It helped him get through the days.
"I wanted out of there," he said. "But the only way out is to commit suicide. Lots of my friends committed suicide."
He almost tried it himself. "Every time I got depressed, every time I thought of suicide, I'd have dreams. Beautiful dreams. I was wise enough to grab all those dreams as a sign of hope."
Years later, Melendez's public trial lawyer became a judge, and his files were offered to his new public defender. She found a box with a tape of a confession by the real killer. She discovered both the defense and prosecutor had the transcript a month before Melendez's trial.
The taped confession led to other leads and people to whom the real killer confessed. The killer was male and apparently having a relationship with the victim. He was also a police informant, who had been himself killed by a police officer two years after the beauty school murder.
With the evidence revealed, a new judge chastised the prosecutors, police and defense lawyer for the way they handled the case. Melendez was given a new trial, but the prosecutor decided not to press the case, and dropped the charges.
Caruso said Melendez's experience isn't unusual. Many inmates on death row are there because of snitch testimony and junk science.
Melendez's case also highlights why the death penalty is so prone to error, according to the activist. "Poor people being defended by inadequate appointed defense council," she said.
The other weakness is the jury system — you have to be death-qualified to serve on a death penalty case, meaning not opposed to capital punishment. "A lot of people are excluded, which proportionally means a lot of people of color. Also death-qualified jurors are more prone to side with the prosecution. There's a built in bias toward conviction."
It took just under two years between the time they found the taped confession and Melendez's release. But still, the moment of his release was a surprise.
"They took me to a room across from death row. With handcuffs on my wrists. Chains on my legs. A woman behind a desk started asking me questions. Silly questions. My Social Security number. Who I worked with. I said, 'you don't understand, they don't have no jobs on death row.'"
"She looked at me and said, 'Melendez, you have no idea what's going on here. They are going to release you today.'"
Melendez was released from jail on Jan. 3, 2003. He spent more than 17 years in jail — 6,446 days on death row.
At his release, a reporter asked him how he felt. He said, "I want to see the moon. I want to see the stars. I want to hold a baby in my hands."
Melendez is an adamant opponent of the death penalty, not because of those who are guilty, but for those who are innocent. "You don't trust the government with your taxes. Why would you trust them with who gets to live or die?"
Now he dedicates himself to rallying against the death penalty.
"You can release an innocent man from jail, but you can never release an innocent man from the grave."
A Confederacy of Dunces
Published: Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, April 13, 2010
I was talking with my Dad this past weekend about an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times entitled “One Man, Two Courts,” by Linda Greenhouse. My Dad said,“If you were to tell me 34 years ago that when John Paul Stevens retired from the Supreme Court, he would be hailed as the leader of liberal wing, I would have thought you were crazy.” I don’t believe his is an isolated opinion. As Greenhouse had explained, Stevens, a moderate Republican from Chicago, was nominated in 1970 by Richard Nixon to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1975 by Republican President Gerald Ford. When asked in an interview in 2007 if he considers himself to be liberal or conservative, Stevens stated “I don’t think of myself as a liberal at all. I think as part of my general politics, I’m pretty darn conservative.” How on earth then did a twice Republican-nominated judge become the voice of the liberal wing in the Supreme Court? The simple answer is that the meaning of being conservative has shifted, and as a result, the Court, not unlike this country, has become increasingly more conservative.
Stevens was the first justice nominated to the Supreme Court after the Court’s 1973 landmark decision in the case Roe v. Wade, in which the Court ruled in favor of protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. Interestingly, during Stevens’ Senate confirmation hearing in 1975, he was asked zero questions regarding the issue of abortion. Within 19 days, Stevens was confirmed by a Democrat-controlled Senate. The vote was 98-0. In retrospect, it is easy to understand why the issue of abortion was never even discussed. It was not until 1980 that the Republican Party platform called for the nomination of judges who opposed abortions. In fact, a Gallup poll the summer before the Court announced its decision in 1973 showed that more Republicans than Democrats were in favor of leaving the decision up to the woman and her doctor.
Stevens himself has been a proponent of the theory that, during his tenure, the Court has become increasingly more conservative, as ideology has played an increasing role in the nomination and confirmation process. In that same 2007 interview, Stevens remarked that “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell (nominated by Richard Nixon in 1971) has been more conservative than his or her predecessor. Except maybe Justice Ginsburg. That’s bound to have an effect on the court.”
But this still does not fully explain how Stevens has emerged as the leader of the liberal wing. Stevens provided a glimpse into that answer when he stated in a speech to the Fordham Law School in 2005 that “learning on the job is essential to the process of judging.” What did he mean? Stevens’ stance on the death penalty provides some understanding. In 1976, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, Stevens voted in favor of the reinstatement of a state’s right to execute criminals, holding that the use of the death penalty could be both rational and fair. But by 2008, in an opinion concurring with the majority decision in Baze v. Rees that found the state of Kentucky’s method by lethal injection lawful, Stevens separately wrote that the time had come to reconsider “the justification for the death penalty itself.” This thoughtful reconsideration and re-evaluation of issues over time has happened in other areas, including affirmative action which he was originally opposed to in 1978.
Stevens will be particularly remembered as the liberal voice on the Court during the last decade, especially for his majority opinions over detainee’s rights at Guantanamo Bay. In 2004 in Rasul v. Bush, he wrote for the majority holding that the United States Courts have jurisdiction over prisoners being held there, and while they may not be citizens, still have a right to habeas corpus. In 2006 in Hamden v. Rumsfeld, again writing for the majority, he attacked the Executive branch stating that “the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction” after the Court found that the military commission set up there was unauthorized by federal statute and violated international law. And arguably his most famous assessment of our democracy came in his dissent in the campaign finance case decided this past January, Citizens United v. F.E.C., in which he stated “while American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
As President Obama readies to appoint someone to fill Stevens’ chair on the Supreme Court, the question is, what should be the criteria? Further, what should be the criteria for the confirmation process? Should ideology, which was not significant in 1975 when Stevens was appointed, be important today? Should, as some Republican commentators have urged, ideology be the litmus test?
The point to make is this: Gone are the days of a justice whose decisions were not defined by what he or she believes ideologically. Gone are the days of consensus-building in the Court. Gone are the days when a justice can essentially “learn on the job” and evolve ideology through experience. Whomever Obama selects, he or she should epitomize the same characteristics that Stevens portrayed, and it should be someone who most certainly continues to shift the Court further toward the center after it moved disturbingly further right under the Bush administration. Stevens warned of the path the Court was heading down in 2000 following its landmark decision in Bush v. Gore. After the court handed George Bush the electoral votes in Florida needed to win the election, Stevens echoed a sentiment shared by many today.
“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
Anthony Matthew Durkin is a senior living off campus and double majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
The judge in Casey Anthony's murder trial took himself off the case Monday after the defense contended he was biased against her.
"Over the past 20-plus months, in between media interviews, guest appearances on television shows and press conferences, defense counsel has filed a litany of motions," Ninth Circuit Court Judge Stan Strickland observed in an order recusing himself from the high-profile murder trial.
"At its core," the judge continued, "defense counsel's motion accuses the undersigned of being a 'self-aggrandizing media hound.' Indeed. The irony is rich."
The case has been reassigned to Judge Belvin Perry Jr.
"Judge Perry is a good judge; he knows the law," attorney for Casey Anthony's parents, Brad Conway, told CNN. "Stan Strickland is just as good and knowledgeable. He's also extremely patient. He lets you say what you have to say, then he rules."
Anthony is awaiting trial in Orange County, Florida, on a charge of first-degree murder in the death of her daughter, Caylee, who was 2 when she disappeared in June 2008. The little girl's remains were found near the Anthony home in December 2008.
Casey Anthony has pleaded not guilty, and her murder trial has been set for May 2011.
Video: Should Casey Anthony judge step down?
In a motion filed 12 minutes before the court closed on Friday, defense attorney Jose Baez accused Strickland of forming a "personal relationship" with blogger Dave Knechel, who writes under the pseudonym "Marinade Dave."
Knechel's blog includes made-up legal motions with titles such as "Casey Anthony must die!" "Caylee's murder: Premeditated and pretty stupid too" and "Guilty as charged."
Baez alleged that the judge called the blogger to inquire about his health and did not disclose the relationship with the defense. He also contends in court papers that the judge recognized Knechel at a court hearing and summoned him to the bench.
Strickland denies there was any personal relationship, saying in his order that he made only "infrequent sojourns into the blogosphere." He added that the blogger had criticized "those who came onto the blog for the sole purpose of bashing the defendant and her family." He said he thanked the blogger in open court for being "both fair and civilized."
Video of an October 19 hearing reviewed by In Session staff shows a bailiff pointing at Knechel. Off-camera audio reveals snippets of a conversation with the judge in which Knechel says people are reading his blog because he does a "good job, very simple."
Although Strickland denied wrongdoing, he acknowledged that repeated accusations of bias would be disruptive at a trial.
"Since the undersigned has now been accused of bias and wrongdoing, potentially each denial of a defense motion will generate renewed allegations of bias," Strickland wrote.
Conway recalled that when he first appeared before Perry years ago, the judge invited him into chambers and gave him two rules: "One, the train leaves at 8:30 a.m. Be on it. Two, be prepared."
Conway said that Perry assured him, "If you follow those two rules, you'll be fine."
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Two years ago, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida was another local government agency with overflowing file cabinets and the inspiration (and budget) to do something about it. Laserfiche was at first intended to manage departmental records, but was soon adapted to catalogue domestic violence cases and help create SORT, the county’s public database of sexual predators. “Being able to scan in domestic violence case reports is important because these cases are very time-sensitive as far as victims support services go,” says Commander Doug Waller. “Time is definitely not on our side.”
The importance of time is especially crucial to homicide cases. “We only see about 10-12 homicides a year and we generally stay on top of them,” says Lieutenant Bruce Barnett. “But the longer a case stays open, the more the paperwork piles up.”
Nowhere was this more evident than in the murder case of Charlotte “Amy” Gellert. One Sunday evening in March, 1994, the 21-year-old returned to her parents’ home, only to walk into a botched robbery attempt. The thief, who had tied up her parents, stabbed Gellert to death and fled the scene.
Over the past decade and a half, the case had gone cold, leaving a mountain of paperwork behind. Most homicides accumulate a box or two of paperwork, but the Gellert case had eight owing to its myriad suspects, reports, statements, testimony and evidence, all stored in what officers referred to as “the big room.”
Barnett saw the potential of using Laserfiche for compiling and indexing the Gellert case along with the county’s other 46 cold case homicides. Some dated as far back as 1967. Almost all had long since seen their initial team of investigators transfer, retire or move on, which complicated the already-difficult task of locating information in decades-old paperwork. “In the past we’d had issues with misplaced files,” Barnett says.
Beginning late last year, the Sheriff’s office began a painstaking backlog conversion project beginning with the Gellert case. Staff often worked after hours to scan and organize files into Laserfiche folders.
In the process, they’d possibly uncover a piece of the puzzle that could hopefully bring a resolution to crimes that have haunted victims’ families for decades. Barnett had realistic hopes for the new technology, pointing out that police departments are not as high-tech as Hollywood makes them out to be. “I remember in 1990 when we had Tandy TS80 words processors and what a big improvement that was over typewriters!”
“It’s frustrating when you’re in front of jurors who think we should be able to have a case solved in an hour because they’re so used to seeing Hollywood depict it that way. It’s not something we can do from our desktop yet,” Barnett adds.
No, but they can at least look at the case from their desktop now, which, Waller explains, is a huge improvement. Putting cold case files into Laserfiche, he says, is a powerful first step in revisiting an investigation. “It’s always good to get a new set of eyes on a case,” he says. “We’re talking about scraps of paper, sometimes stuffed in files, that used to take hours, sometimes days to dig out – that is if you could find it. Now I can see it from my desk in moments.”
It’s not quite “CSI: Laserfiche” but it’s getting there. Unlike television shows where detectives huddle around supercomputers that can reveal a fingerprint, photo and —this gets a chuckle from Waller—a reliable current address, all with a single keystroke, local law enforcement send data comparison requests to state and national databases. These can take hours, sometimes weeks or even months, to come back with possible matches. “I wish we could solve the whole thing in an hour like TV does,” Waller says. “We don’t have the budgets Hollywood thinks we have.
“Local governments are always the first to have budgets cut,” he adds. “The reality is, we just don’t have the resources to address cold homicide cases every day.”
But when officers are able to turn their attention to a cold case—and just having to dig into old files to scan them creates awareness—Laserfiche provides them with a wider lens to view what’s there. “We can start comparing data from other cases, like behaviors, things left behind at the crime scene or modes of entry,” says Barnett.
Waller is even more emphatic: “Fifteen or twenty years later there may be something that glows in the dark that wasn’t so obvious at the time of the crime.”
And in the Gellert case, he says, something has: while re-evaluating evidence during the case file upload process, a DNA sample was discovered. “We obtained the DNA profile after reviewing the case and resubmitting the evidence for analysis that did not exist at the time of the crime,“ Waller says. “It’s the kind of thing we weren’t scientifically capable of doing fifteen years ago.”
That’s no guarantee the case will be solved. Barnett has transferred to another division within the county, and just a few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that some 400 DNA samples in rape and homicide cases were languishing unanalyzed due to the limited resources to analyze them.
But Laserfiche is a step in the right direction, especially for police departments with limited resources.
“Police departments usually have records managers because of the sheer amount of paperwork they generate,” notes Donny Barstow of Laserfiche reseller MCCi. “They’re already using [police software], but that’s just for their active data, not their records.” Because so many local governments already use Laserfiche, expanding its use to law enforcement and specifically cold cases is a way to maximize both resources and service, he says.
Other police departments using Laserfiche have already solved high-profile cold cases. In Wichita, KS, the so-called BTK killer was brought to justice after years of eluding police because authorities were able to track the metadata on a computer disc he used to communicate with a newspaper.
And in Hollywood, FL, the case of Adam Walsh, whose disappearance and murder inspired his grieving father John Walsh to found the “America’s Most Wanted” franchise, was finally closed last December, again partly because police were able to conclusively link a suspect who died in custody in 1996 once and for all to the disappearance and murder. The Walsh case shows just how important it is to catalogue and access information in a case: in a tragic investigative misstep, a blood soaked piece of a car seat, and eventually the entire car itself, were accidentally destroyed due to a documentation mix-up.
Waller points out that being able to use Laserfiche to compare data from other cases, to get that fresh set of eyes, as he calls it, is not unlike Operation SMART, a state-wide law enforcement cold case effort that Brevard County participates in to collaborate and compare experience and expertise in investigations that span cities and regions.
With Laserfiche’s case, it’s spanning time. “I can’t say that we’ve solved a case yet,” Waller admits, “but we have several that are very close.”
A convicted murderer on death row won't get a new trial despite claims a witness and state attorney investigator had a sexual relationship, a witness recanted testimony and those handling his case are biased against him.
Cary Michael Lambrix, 50, asked for a new trial and raised other concerns, but Florida Supreme Court justices Thursday denied his claims in a 27-page opinion. Lambrix was convicted in 1984 of killing 19-year-old Alisha Bryant and 35-year-old Lawrence Lamberson in Glades County after luring them to his trailer.
Lambrix's hopes for a new trial rested partially on testimony from his girlfriend at the time of the murders, Frances Ottinger, who said she had a one-time sexual encounter with former state attorney's office investigator Robert Daniels during one of Lambrix's trials in 1983 or 1984. Daniels denied the sexual encounter and Ottinger, now Frances Smith, testified at a hearing in recent years she couldn't say when and where the encounter happened. The Supreme Court, as well as a lower court, found the encounter never happened.
Witness Deborah Hanzel testified in both of Lambrix's trials about what the defendant said after the murders. During post-conviction proceedings in 1998, Hanzel testified Lambrix never admitted to killing Bryant and Lamberson. But justices said Hanzel's testimony probably wouldn't have changed the outcome of his trial and denied his claim on that point.
They also denied claims the trial court didn't allow him a full and fair hearing, that there was judicial bias during retrial proceedings and that Lambrix should get a new trial.
His attorney, Williams Dennis of Fort Lauderdale, was unavailable for comment.
State Attorney Steve Russell said that, although Lambrix will be able to bring his case to the federal courts, he hopes closure is soon.
"I think capital litigation is frustrating to victims' families and prosecutors alike," he said. "While I believe in a thorough right to appeal, 25-plus years in reviewing a case, in my mind, is normally excessive."
Sunday, April 4, 2010
TALLAHASSEE — A tweak to the state budget could provide $200,000 to create a commission through the Supreme Court to investigate wrongful convictions in Florida.
“As we know there are sometimes, unfortunately, events … where Florida residents have been wrongfully convicted and hopefully this will not happen in the future,” said Senate President Designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, who sponsored the amendment.
The idea of an innocence commission has been floated over the last several months. In December, former American Bar Association President Sandy D’Alemberte filed a petition with the Florida Supreme Court asking it to establish a commission. Last week, the court sent a letter to D’Alemberte saying that a petition was not the appropriate mechanism for establishing a commission, but said that the court may call for one anyway.
“The Court, however, is very much interested in looking at the cases of actual innocence, and is considering the establishment of a commission or task force by Administrative Order,” Chief Justice Peggy Quince wrote to D’Alemberte.
The amendment to the Senate budget, which was quickly approved without opposition, shifts $200,000 within the State Court Trust Fund from a budget item dedicated to “contracted services” for the circuit courts to one creating the commission.
A spokesman for the Supreme Court said that the court’s legislative office had been given a heads-up about the amendment, but because it was a last-minute proposal, court officials have not yet determined how it could affect court operations.
“We don’t really know yet, because this is so new,” said Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters in an e-mail message to the News Service.
Contracted services for the courts could include anything from repair and maintenance agreements, to employment services, legal and official notices, delivery services, fingerprinting and background checks, Waters said.
The House has not put a similar amendment creating the commission in its budget, so whether it will ultimately make the final version of the budget remains in question.
D’Alemberte initially suggested modeling a Florida commission after one in North Carolina, which includes representatives from the governor’s office, defense attorneys, law enforcement representatives, prosecutors, law professors and victims’ advocates. In addition to North Carolina, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin also have similar commissions.
Haridopolos had initially shown support for the idea of a commission months ago and inquired about the budget for a commission.
In a letter responding to Haridopolos, Quince wrote that it was examining past commissions to see the amount of money necessary to adequately study and make recommendations related to wrongful convictions.
According to Quince, the budget for the Gender Bias Study Commission over a three year period was $321,589, peaking at about $146,000 in fiscal year 1988. The Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission had a $378,350 budget over five years, with the highest yearly appropriation at $278,350 in fiscal year 1991
Capital murder trials and death row boondoggles are wreaking havoc on budgets across the country as many states are now rethinking the death penalty, which is enormously costly and rarely imposed even after successful prosecutions.
Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.
That is the broad assessment of a growing number of studies taking a cold, hard look at how much the death penalty costs in the 35 states that still have it.
Forget justice, morality, the possibility of killing an innocent man or any of the traditional arguments that have been part of the public debate over the death penalty. The new one is this:
The cost of killing killers is killing us.
"There have been studies of costs of the death penalty before, but we have never seen the same reaction that we are seeing now," says Richard C. Dieter of the non-partisan Death Penalty Information Center. "Perhaps it is because governments are looking for ways to cut costs, and this is easier than school closings or layoffs, but it sure has hit a nerve."
In the last year, four states — Kansas, Colorado, Montana and Connecticut — have wrestled with the emotional and politically charged issue. In each state there was a major shift toward rejection of the death penalty and narrow defeats for legislation that would have abolished it. In Connecticut, both houses actually voted in favor of a bill that would have banned executions, but the governor vetoed it.
Unlike past debates over executions, the current battles are fueled largely by the costs the death penalty imposes on states. The numbers, according to the studies, are staggering.
Overall, according to Dieter, the studies have uniformly and conservatively shown that a death-penalty trial costs $1 million more than one in which prosecutors seek life without parole. That expense is being reexamined in the current budget crisis, with some state legislators advocating a moratorium on death-penalty trials until the economy improves.
An Urban Institute study of Maryland's experience with the death penalty found that a single death-penalty trial cost $1.9 million more than a non-death-penalty trial. Since 1978, the cost to taxpayers for the five executions the state carried out was $37.2 million dollars — each.
Since 1983, taxpayers in New Jersey have paid $253 million more for death penalty trials than they would have paid for trials not seeking execution — but the Garden State has yet to execute a single convict. Of the 197 capital cases tried in New Jersey, there have been 60 death sentences, the report said, and 50 of the those convictions were overturned. There currently are 10 men on the state's death row.
A recent Duke University study of North Carolina's death penalty costs found that the state could save $11 million a year by substituting life in prison for the death penalty. An earlier Duke study found that the state spent $2.1 million more on a death penalty case than on one seeking a life sentence.
The Tennessee Comptroller of the Currency recently estimated that death penalty trials cost an average of 48 percent more than trials in which prosecutors sought life sentences.
It was much the same story in Kansas. A state-sponsored study found that death penalty cases cost 70 percent more than murder trials that didn't seek the death penalty.
A Florida study found the state could cut its costs by $51 million simply by eliminating the death penalty.
But no state matches the dilemma of California, where almost 700 inmates are sitting on death row and, according to Natasha Minsker, author of a new report by the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, few will ever actually be put to death. In fact, she says, the odds against being executed are so great, murder suspects in California actually seek the death penalty because it is the only way to get a single room in the state's prison system.
"Only 1 percent of people sentenced to death in California in the last 30 years have been executed," Minsker said. "The death penalty in California is purely a symbolic sentence."
Her study found that the cash-strapped state could immediately save $1 billion by eliminating the death penalty and imposing sentences of life without parole. The alternative, if the cash-strapped state keeps the death penalty: spend $400 million to build a new death-row prison to house the growing number of prisoners.
Minsker said just keeping prisoners on death row costs $90,000 more per prisoner per year than regular confinement, because the inmates are housed in single rooms and the prisons are staffed with extra guards. That money alone would cut $63 million from the state budget. But other savings would ripple through every step of the criminal justice system as well, from court costs to subsidized spending for defense attorney and investigation expenses.
Will the economic slump and every state's need to cut budgets have an impact? Death penalty opponents say the recession has given their effort a new, non-political reason for abolition that resonates on both sides of the debate. But Professor Paul Cassell, the Ronald N. Boyce Presidential Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Utah and a death penalty expert, says that major changes are not likely to occur soon.
"You can make the argument that it is cheaper not to have the death penalty" he said, but that is not what the death penalty is about.
The death penalty "provides a sense of justice to the system, is a just punishment for murder and has a deterrent effect on crime," he said. "Besides, the amount of money saved is not that big compared to what the entire justice system spends."
"Moreover," he said, "polls show that 70 to 80 percent of people support the death penalty. And that isn't going to change."