Friday, September 10, 2010

Florida Innocence Commission draws up agenda for reducing wrongful convictions

TALLAHASSEE — One by one, the names of 11 men wrongfully convicted flashed on a large screen.

James Bain, 55, watched a room full of judges, lawyers and cops study his case in sobering silence.

The Tampa resident spent 35 years in prison for rape before being exonerated with DNA testing nearly a year ago.

"I thought I'd walk right out of (the trial) because I knew they had the wrong person," Bain recalled.

His struggle for justice — complicated by a poor defense lawyer and handwritten appeals — served as a call to action for the Florida Innocence Commission at its first meeting Friday.

"We can recognize that the perfection of justice will always remain an elusive goal," said Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canaday, who helped launch the group. "But that reality can never be an excuse for relaxing out efforts to protect the innocent."

The 23-member commission, led by 9th Circuit Chief Judge Bevin Perry Jr., is studying the 11 Florida exonerations to make recommendations on how to prevent wrongful convictions.

A national study of 225 people exonerated through DNA testing, conducted by the Innocence Project, an advocacy organization for defendants, helped set the parameters for the commission.

The main factor contributing to wrongful convictions is faulty identifications of defendants by eyewitnesses, the study showed. It occurs in more than three-quarters of exonerations.

The other main problems: invalid forensic evidence, false confessions and bad informants.

The panel will address each element at upcoming meetings throughout the state as it prepares a final report, which is due June 2012.

"You see something like that, you have to take a step back and saw we need to get at these problems," said 18th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge J. Preston Silvernail.

But solutions won't come easy.

Other states with similar commissions have spent six months to a year on the problem of eyewitnesses alone.

And the Florida group started slowly, spending the first hour in the four-hour meeting debating the wording of its mission statement and objectives.

One dispute involved whether to use the word "wrongful" or "erroneous" to describe the bogus convictions. They eventually agreed to use both.

And later the commission deleted a reference in the bylaws to the cases of the 11 exonerated men because members didn't want to declare them innocent without reviewing the cases. "Are they innocent or was there just not sufficient evidence" to convict them again? asked Brad King, the state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit.

The slow progress frustrated Alan Crotzer, a former St. Petersburg resident, who was freed in 2006 after 24 1/2 years behind bars for a rape, kidnapping and robbery he didn't commit.

"Please don't let this become a paralyzed system of analysts," he told the commission. "Make it happen. Make it better. Fix it. You have that power now."


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Florida High Court Upholds Decision to Lift Death Sentence

Paul Beasley Johnson was brought this morning from death row to be in court for a case management hearing in Bartow, Fla. on Friday March 21, 2003.

The Florida Supreme Court denied a request Thursday to reconsider its decision to lift the death sentences against murderer Paul Beasley Johnson, who in 1981 killed a Polk County Sheriff's deputy and two others.

The court has ordered a new penalty phase for Johnson to decide whether he should remain on death row or be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The court let the three murder convictions against him stand.

In January, the state's highest court released an opinion saying misconduct by the original prosecutor in Johnson's case means a new penalty phase must be held to decide whether Johnson should be executed or given life in prison.

The state Attorney General's Office filed a motion seeking a rehearing on the opinion.

The Florida Supreme Court's order Thursday denied that request.

Johnson, 61, of Eagle Lake has been on Florida's death row for more than 20 years.

He has twice been found guilty of a drug-fueled rampage that began on the evening of Jan. 8, 1981, and left three people fatally shot, including Deputy Theron A. Burnham, 27.

Johnson was convicted in 1981 of killing Burnham; William Evans, a Winter Haven cab driver; and Darrell Ray Beasley, a Lakeland man who agreed to give Johnson a ride.

In 1986, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial because jury members had not been properly sequestered during their deliberations.

After a mistrial because of juror misconduct, Johnson was retried, and again convicted and sentenced to death in 1988.

Last year, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd organized an online petition, urging the governor to sign Johnson's death warrant.

But the Supreme Court granted Johnson's stay of execution to consider his pending appeal.

The court released an opinion on Jan. 14 calling for lawyers to once again prepare the case for new jurors to hear evidence and arguments about the punishment Johnson receive.

The opinion was critical of the case's original prosecutor and concluded a jailhouse informant should not have been allowed to testify that Johnson intended to "play like he was crazy."

The informant said years later that he lied at trial and testified that he was working under the instruction of authorities to gather information to prosecute Johnson, according to court records.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Murderer's Death Sentenced Overturned

A 78-year-old Brevard County man was re-sentenced to life in prison Thursday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his death sentence.

"Them Chinese were crazy, which I'm crazy too," convicted killer George Porter said.

George Porter said he never asked the judge to save his life, but decades of appeals did get his death sentence thrown out and he said the appeals will continue.

"It gives me something to do while I watch TV," he said.

Porter was convicted in 1988 of murdering his ex-girlfriend, 50-year-old Evelyn Williams and her new boyfriend, William Burrows. But last November, the Supreme Court threw out his death sentence because Porter's attorney failed to bring up at his original sentencing, childhood abuse or possible post traumatic stress disorder from combat in the Korean War.

"I got three bronze stars, one silver star. I don't know what they are all for," said Porter.

Because of Porter's age, prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty again.

A victim's advocate spoke on behalf of the Evelyn William's family.

"Using military service as an excuse to commit a heinous crime is positively shameful," said William Burrows, the victim's son.

Porter could be considered for parole after 25 years for each of three life sentences he's serving. He'd be 129 years old, so even though he doesn't have a death sentence, he will die in prison.

The Supreme Court decision in the case did set a precedent. Not only did it get Porter off death row, prosecutors said other defense attorneys could try to use it to help other convicts with military backgrounds.

Memories of student murders fade for some, not all

Today's students are too young to remember slayings, yet lessons from that terrible time remain.

Published: Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Aaron Daye/Staff photographer
Alan Nicotra, left, and Core Portnoy hold a plaque on the Southwest 34th Street walll dedicated to the victims of Danny Rolling.

Twenty years after the murders of five Gainesville college students, memories of the tragedy have faded, and some people worry that a sense of complacency has set in among students.

This week's anniversary of the killings will be marked by a memorial event Thursday at the University of Florida. But most current UF students are too young to remember the brutal slayings, and the execution of Danny Rolling for the crimes in 2006 has further moved the case out of the public consciousness.

"The sadness here is our students don't know anything about this," UF President Bernie Machen said. "I'm not sure whether the best thing is to resurrect it or just to move forward and keep focusing on 'Be safe and have a healthy lifestyle.' "

It was on a day like today, the Sunday before the start of UF's fall semester, that the first victims were found in August 1990. Gainesville attorney Rod Smith remembered it being an optimistic time - John Lombardi had just started as UF president and Steve Spurrier as head football coach - before the murders brought it crashing down. "It would be hard to replicate today how out of hand it got for a few days," he said.

Five victims would be found dead in their Gainesville apartments over the course of three days: Sonja Larson, 18, of Deerfield Beach; Christina Powell, 17, of Jacksonville; Christa Hoyt, 18, of Archer; Manuel Taboada, 23, of Carol City; and Tracy Paules, 23, of Miami. All but Hoyt were UF students; Hoyt attended Santa Fe Community College (now known as Santa Fe College).

Gainesville was gripped in fear by the idea that a serial killer was on the loose and breaking into students' apartments. Classes were canceled. Thousands of students fled Gainesville for their parents' homes. People living alone slept at friends' places. Gun sales jumped. Nine months passed before Rolling, a drifter and career criminal from Louisiana, was publicly named as a suspect.

Smith was the state attorney who prosecuted Rolling, leading to a death sentence in 1994. Smith, who went on to serve as state senator and is now a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he's struck by the fact that so much time has passed that Rolling's victims would now be adults with families.

"Their children should be at the University of Florida now," Smith said. "They should be watching graduations. Their parents should be celebrating grandchildren that they'll never see."

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell was the spokeswoman for the Gainesville Police Department during the investigation into the murders. She said she hopes the community continues to remember the victims and their families - and that Gainesville continues to use the ordeal 20 years ago as a lesson about public safety.

"It's important to remember not only their loss but that we're all vulnerable, and we need to look out for one another," she said.

The murders had a lasting impact on the victims' families. Christa Hoyt's stepmother, Dianna, said she believes the trauma contributed to her husband Gary's death in 2000 from a rare brain disorder. She said he didn't expect to live to see the execution of his daughter's killer. Dianna Hoyt did witness the execution, which she said hasn't provided closure.

"I think the only thing it's done is given me more peace of mind," she said.

Hoyt speaks several times each year to UF journalism classes on the importance of maintaining sensitivity with crime victims. Increasingly she's speaking to students who weren't even born at the time of the murders.

"They have no idea of the terrors that we faced. ... They've never lived through anything like that," she said.

Students do maintain a connection through a memorial to the victims painted soon after the murders on the Southwest 34th Street wall. Members of UF's Interfraternity Council repaint the memorial when it gets covered with graffiti, and a few days ago installed a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the memorial, which names all five victims and has hearts painted around the word "REMEMBER."

Council President Sean Smith said the plaque is meant to be a more permanent reminder of the tragedy that discourages students from defacing the memorial.

"That's our main goal: to have it at a point that it's general knowledge that you don't paint over this portion of the wall," he said.

There are also five palms planted in the median near the wall in memory of the students, as well as five trees on campus near Library East. UF is marking the anniversary Thursday, the 20th anniversary of the day the first victims were found, by tying white ribbons on the trees and tolling the carillon bells of Century Tower five times. A moment of silence will follow.

While Rolling broke into the victims' apartments to commit the murders, UF officials hope the case can be used as a lesson that students can prevent other types of violent crimes. Machen said he wants to emphasize that students must make good choices such as not jogging late at night or not putting themselves in a compromising position by drinking excessively. "I think that's the relevant thing today," he said. "Sure, it could happen again, but I think people today need to take more responsibility for their own well being than they do."

UF Police Department spokesman Jeff Holcomb, a captain who's been with the department since 1988, said the murders didn't directly lead to many changes in campus security. But he said practices have since been adopted that emphasize the importance of students taking steps to ensure their safety, such as the rape aggression defense program and shuttle escort service at nights.

"Our focus has shifted a lot to a shared responsibility with students," he said.

The murders happened in off-campus apartments in close proximity to Archer Road. Richard Ashbrook, who was a student at the time of the murders and today is president of the North Central Florida Apartment Association, said apartments are generally safer today than at the time of the killings. "It's like anything - the newer buildings are built better," he said.

Apartment owners also have become more sophisticated in educating their tenants, he said. The messages include never leaving doors unlocked and using more than one method to lock sliding glass doors, which is one of the ways Rolling entered the apartments of his victims.

"One of the things that we have to remember first is that safety is the responsibility of the individual," Ashbrook said.

Some of the case's most lasting legacies involve the families of the victims. Darnell said the case was part of a sea change in the criminal justice system. Victim advocacy is now seen as an integral part of the duties of law enforcement, she said.

"Truly that's what our purpose is - to serve those who have been victimized," he said.

An offshoot is a precedent set by the case involving crime photos. The media sought access to photos that showed the dismemberment of some of the victims. Circuit Judge Stan Morris ruled that the media and public could review the photos at the courthouse but could not duplicate the photos.

The case continues to be a reference point as the media seek access to autopsy photos and footage such as a video of a SeaWorld trainer's death by a killer whale this year. Morris, who retired from the bench earlier this year, said he believes his decision was a reasonable compromise.

"I was firmly convinced that the public has a right to know," he said. "I was trying to figure out a way to allow that access and to protect the families' sensitivities. I think I did that."

Morris had the opportunity to attend Rolling's execution but decided against it. While some were frustrated that it took 16 years to execute someone who had admitted his guilt, Morris said he believed it showed that the system works. "My attitude is that if you're going to have a death penalty, then you have to do it right," he said.

Spencer Mann, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office at the time of the killings, attended the execution and said it was "anticlimactic" compared with the violence experienced by the victims. He said he also was disappointed that Rolling sang a gospel hymn rather than offer apologies before being executed by lethal injection.

Mann, who is now an investigator and spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, said the attention to the killings gets a little less with each passing year. But while he said students might not know about the events of August 1990, they forever will be remembered in the wider community.

"I think the impact is greater on the permanent Gainesville residents than the students, because it was part of the fabric of our history," he said.

Death-row inmate John Huggins declares himself competent

John Huggins, who killed Carla Larson in June 1997, has been fitted with a device that will deliver an electric shock if he gets out of control.

By Anthony Colarossi, Orlando Sentinel

6:08 PM EDT, August 23, 2010

Death row inmate John Huggins declared himself competent Monday and reiterated his opposition to his own lawyers while sitting next to them in court.

Huggins, who was forcibly removed from his cell to attend Monday's hearing, also announced he has filed an ethics complaint against the judge in his case, Orange-Osceola Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry.

Monday was the first day of a lengthy evidentiary hearing for Huggins, who refuses to participate in his own defense while questions about his competence linger. The hearing is expected to run through Wednesday.

Huggins killed 30-year-old construction engineer Carla Larson in June 1997. Her body was found near Walt Disney World.

Now, Huggins, 48, also refuses to meet with court-appointed experts to evaluate his competence.

"I am competent," Huggins told Judge Perry today. "My mental condition is sound and always has been sound."

However, a psychologist hired by his legal team said Huggins has a history of mental illness and has raised doubts about his competence to assist his counsel in his post-conviction relief motion.

Perry repeatedly asked Huggins if he would agree to meet with a court-appointed doctor and Huggins repeatedly – and respectfully – declined.

Huggins on Monday briefly alluded to his belief in a conspiracy against him, involving his ex-wife and Oklahoma City, but he did not elaborate. Ultimately, Perry will rule whether Huggins should receive a new trial, get a new penalty phase or remain on death row, heading for execution.

But Huggins' repeated refusals to cooperate have left Perry asking both sides for answers on how to proceed. Perry already ruled that issues covered during this week's hearing do not require Huggins' input.

But on Monday he said future topics will likely require his participation and a firm determination regarding his competence.

"Maybe this is the first time this has happened. I doubt it," Perry said. "At some point we're going to have to discuss this issue."

Meanwhile, Huggins has been fitted with a "REACT belt,'' a stunning device that will deliver an electric shock if he gets out of control.

Recently, Huggins refused to leave his cell and appear via video conference call for a hearing intended to deal with his request to fire his legal team.

Huggins' defense attorney has argued his hearing should be delayed until the question of Huggins' competence can be settled.

Yet Assistant State Attorney Jeff Ashton on Monday said Huggins appeared lucid and understanding of what was going on. He offered one explanation for Huggins' lack of cooperation: "It's not in his [Huggins'] best interest to make this easy," he said.

Anthony Colarossi can be reached at or 407-420-5447.