Friday, June 29, 2007

No Death Penalty In Pompano Beach Baby Dumping

Grand Jurors Indict Mom Who Dumped Baby In A Trash Chute

(CBS4) POMPANO BEACH The Iowa woman indicted Thursday for allegedly dumping her newborn baby down the trash chute of a Pompano Beach hotel will face arraignment in the next few weeks, but she will not face the death penalty if convicted.

A grand jury indicted 18-year-old Ashely Truitt Thursday for first-degree murder.

Prosecutors say Truitt, who was visiting South Florida from Solon, Iowa, hid her pregnancy from her parents and boyfriend. They were staying at the hotel when authorities found a bloody knife in the hallway and the newborn's body in a trash bin in early June.

Truitt said she gave birth in the bathroom, using a kitchen knife to cut the umbilical cord. She then put the baby in a plastic bag with some bath towels and threw it down the trash chute. Truitt told investigators the baby was breathing and crying upon birth.

An autopsy found the newborn died from blunt trauma to the head.

Truitt is being held without bond at the Broward County Jail. The state attorney's office says it doesn't plan to seek the death penalty.


From prison warden to anti-execution advocate

By Bill Berlow


Eleven years ago, when Ron McAndrew became superintendent of the Florida prison where Death Row inmates are executed, he was an unflinching supporter of capital punishment.

"I thought it was the right thing to do," he said.

Early today, the Dunnellon resident will fly to Washington to participate in a fast and vigil organized by the anti-death-penalty Abolitionist Action Committee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The demonstration, which includes a press conference in which McAndrew is a featured speaker, is part of four days of activities commemorating 1972 and 1976 Supreme Court rulings suspending then reinstating capital punishment in the United States.

"The death penalty puts us right up there with the barbarians in Iran, where killing other people is a sport more than justice," he said. "It's an absolute political manipulation - a politician's best toy."

It's been an interesting, introspective journey for McAndrew, 68, who witnessed and was victim of his share of prison violence as he worked his way up through the Department of Corrections ranks.

Just a few weeks after becoming top dog at Florida State Prison at Starke, he oversaw his first execution. John Earl Bush was electrocuted on Oct. 21, 1996, for killing Evinrude outboard heiress Francis Slater in 1982.

"I realized," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday, "that I had no business standing there."

McAndrew said the process leading up to the execution, and the final, carefully choreographed act itself, horrified him.

While at Starke, McAndrew oversaw two other executions - including John Mills Jr., who murdered Les Lawhon in Wakulla County, and the infamous botched execution of Pedro Medina in 1997.

After flames leapt from Medina's mask, filling the execution chamber with smoke and the smell of burning flesh, Florida aggressively pursued lethal injection as its preferred execution method, although condemned inmates may still request the electric chair.

McAndrew went to Texas while still a Corrections administrator to see how lethal injections worked and help Florida make the transition. Lethal injections temporarily reduced his ambivalence, but didn't rid him of it. It wasn't until a few years after he left Florida State Prison that he decided capital punishment was wrong under all circumstances.

He retired from the DOC several years ago and now, as a consultant on prisons, occasionally testifies against his former employer despite his generally fond feelings for the agency.

About seven years ago, he said, he found religious faith and became a Catholic. Previously, he said, faith played almost no role in his life, but now he believes "that killing people is a sin" - even killing those who took innocent lives themselves.

But what would he say to diehard supporters of the death penalty, particularly the loved one of a murder victim?

"It's very easy," he said. "You just say that the most severe punishment you could ever give anyone would be to lock them in a little cage made out of concrete and steel ... with a steel cot, a mattress that is 2 inches thick, a stainless steel toilet that does not have a lid, and you leave them there for the rest of their natural life.

"There can't be a more severe punishment than that," he said, "and you feed them institutional food for 365 days a year."

And, when DNA testing reveals the occasional wrongful conviction, it's not too late to correct - to the extent possible - the state's mistake.

Like McAndrew, I used to support the death penalty, and people I respect still do. I just can no longer justify even one execution of someone wrongfully convicted as worth the price for putting so many more actual murderers to death.

Let's face it, the death penalty is about vengeance at least as much as it's about justice. That's understandable. If someone murdered a person I loved, I'm pretty certain I'd feel like killing him.

But vengeance dehumanizes, and the death-penalty ritual is state-sponsored theater designed precisely to achieve that objective.

McAndrew still wrestles with ghosts of his past.

"These folks that you sent on to another world," McAndrew said, "they have a way of coming back and sitting on the edge of your bed at night. I don't like that. It's not the right thing to do."

Amen, brother.

Jury Recommends Death Penalty For Killer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- After a several hours of deliberations Thursday, a jury recommended that an accused serial killer should be executed for the rape and slaying of a 24-year-old woman.

On June 8, the same jury of seven women and five men found Paul Durousseau guilty of first-degree murder in the 1999 killing of Tyresa Mack, a mother of three.

Durousseau was arrested in 2003 and is charged in the deaths of five other women. Trials on those charges are still pending.

Thursday evening, Durousseau sat emotionless as the jury's decision was read -- death by lethal injection.

"The majority of the jury, 10-2, advised and recommend to the court that they impose the death penalty upon Paul Durousseau," was the statement read in court.

After eight long years of waiting, the victim's family said the jury's decision was the closure it needed and it hopes to move forward.

Mack's mother, Iris Harper, said she couldn't be happier about the jury's decision.

"I feel relieved. I'm at peace now. My mother, my brother, my daughter and my family, the ones that are not here, they can rest in peace now," Harper said.

The victim's family was quiet in court, but outside in the hallway, their excitement erupted as the still-grieving family got some closure that was many years in the making.

"I thank God. It's a closure; I mean this is the most wonderful thing that could have ever happened. This is something I prayed for eight years. My mom prayed for eight years before she died. I'm just relieved, I really am," Harper said.

In a few weeks, the judge will take the jury's recommendation and make a final

Convicted Killer Nelson Serrano Moved to Death Row

POLK COUNTY -- Polk County inmate and convicted murderer Nelson Ivan Serrano, who was sentenced to die on June 26, was moved out of the Polk County Jail Thursday morning.

Serrano was taken by Polk County deputies to the Florida Department of Corrections Reception Medical Center in Lake Butler, where all death row inmates are initially received.

A judge officially sentenced Serrano to lethal injection for killing George Gonsalves, Frank Dosso and Diane and George Patisso in Dember of 1997.

Serrano's sentence and conviction will be automatically appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which is standard procedure.

©2007 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Cyprus court backs extradition of US cyanide fugitive, defense to appeal

The Associated Press
Friday, June 29, 2007

LARNACA, Cyprus: A fugitive doctor accused in the United States of fatally poisoning his wife can be extradited, a court in Cyprus ruled Friday.

The court rejected the defense argument that Yazeed Essa, 38, would face the death penalty if he returns to the U.S. state of Ohio. Defense lawyers said they will appeal the decision.

Cypriot law bans extradition of suspects who face the death penalty.

Essa, a U.S. citizen, disappeared before he was indicted on aggravated murder charges in Cuyahoga County in the death from cyanide poisoning of his wife, Rosemarie Essa, 38. She collapsed in her car and died on Feb. 24, 2005, about five miles (eight kilometers) from their home in Gates Mills, near Cleveland, Ohio.

He was arrested last October in Cyprus as he attempted to clear customs after arriving from Lebanon.

Charges against Essa carry a term of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years.

But his defense fought extradition, arguing that he could face a death sentence if convicted for his wife's death because prosecutors could amend the charge to one that carries the death penalty.

In its 45-page decision, the court said expert testimony presented by the defense to support this argument was "supposition and conjecture."

Judge Elias Georgiou said Essa failed to present credible evidence to suggest a "serious possibility or real risk, that the charges will be amended" or new charges, carrying the death penalty, will be filed.

The judge ordered Essa to remain in custody until his extradition.

Defense attorney Soteris Argyrou said they will first contest his continued detention before appealing the decision at the island's Supreme Court — setting the stage for a lengthy legal battle.

A mustachioed Essa appeared in court with a shaved head, clad in black T-shirt and jeans. He followed the two-hour hearing, held in Greek, through a translator.

Ohio authorities believe that after his wife's death, Essa, an emergency room doctor, traveled to Syria, Greece and Lebanon and possibly visited Florida.

He disappeared in March 2005, leaving behind the couple's two children, then aged 4 and 2. The children currently are living with Rosemarie Essa's brother.

Conviction stands in Zeigler case

June 29, 2007

Orange County

The Florida Supreme Court refused to overturn death-row inmate William "Tommy" Zeigler's murder conviction, according to a ruling released Thursday.

Zeigler's lawyer tried to convince the justices that DNA tests conducted in 2002 raised doubt that Zeigler killed his wife, her parents and a friend on Christmas Eve 1975 at his Winter Garden furniture store.

The blood found on the defendant and some of the victims did not conclusively eliminate Zeigler as the perpetrator, the justices wrote in their ruling.

Zeigler, 61, was convicted by a Duval County jury in 1976 for killing his wife, Eunice; her parents, Virginia and Perry Edwards; and store customer Charlie Mays. The jury recommended life in prison, but the trial judge instead imposed the death sentence.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing, but Zeigler was sentenced again in 1989 to death.

Ludmilla Lelis, Erika Hobbs, Leslie Postal, Sarah Lundy, Christopher Sherman and Willoughby Mariano of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press also was used.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Defenders argue plan for defense

The Florida Times-Union

June 27, 2007

By Paul Pinkham,
The Times-Union

Florida defense lawyers predict disaster for a legislative plan that creates a new state agency to replace court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants who can't be represented by a public defender.

They foresee offices filled with overworked, underpaid attorneys, diminishing the quality of justice for the poor and leading to an increase in costly appeals and delays in criminal and child dependency cases.

More Times-Union legislative coverage Learn more about members of the First Coast legislative delegation State budget coverage Florida health services coverage State education coverage Public safety legislationLearn more about Senate Bill 1088

Even Gov. Charlie Crist, who signed the legislation into law, expressed reservations about it last week, saying in a letter he was concerned about the "radical replacement" of court-appointed private lawyers with 384 new state employees.

But the new agency's primary champion says its critics are overreacting and it will save the state millions of dollars in costs to defend accused criminals in cases where public defenders have conflicts of interest. State Sen. Victor Crist, who's not related to the governor, said the new Offices of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel will allow state government to control the quality and spiraling cost of such representation.

"The compelling reason we did this is money," said Sen. Crist, R-Tampa and chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee. Florida was looking at spending $100 million this year on court-appointed lawyers, he said. The annual budget for the new agency is half that.

He said lawyers are upset because the new system will cost them money.

Most indigent defendants in Florida are represented by the public defender's office in their county. But sometimes the public defender has to opt out - in cases with multiple defendants, for instance, or when the public defender has represented the victim in the past.

Traditionally, judges have appointed private lawyers to handle conflict cases, and Sen. Crist said those costs have nearly tripled the past three years.

The new agency will shift that responsibility Oct. 1 to one of five conflict offices across the state. The one serving Northeast Florida will encompass 32 counties, from Jacksonville to Pensacola. The state will pay for office space the first 18 months. Then that cost shifts to the counties.

The legislation dictates that each office will be headed by a regional counsel who will be paid $80,000, about half of what elected public defenders.

"They're trying to save money at the expense of the litigant," said Jacksonville defense attorney Refik Eler. "What they're saving up front will be spent down the road."

Eler said he understands the need to get costs under control but said the concern among his colleagues is that the new office will be staffed with inexperienced lawyers who aren't equipped to handle complex cases, leading to more money being spent on appeals.

The problem could be particularly acute in smaller counties, where the ratio of conflicts is higher because people know each other, said attorney Teresa Sopp of Nassau County. It could be exacerbated by the number of lawyers who plan to stop accepting court-appointments because of cuts in their fees.

"It's going to make it very difficult for felony judges to find competent representation," she said. "I don't know how they're going to attract people who are qualified to handle death penalty cases, for instance."

A. Russell Smith of Jacksonville, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he doesn't expect the quality of lawyers to be the problem. But he's concerned they will be stretched too thin. For instance he said early estimates are nine or 10 lawyers will handle criminal cases in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

Gov. Crist expressed similar concerns in a June 19 letter to the secretary of state. While praising the Legislature for tackling the spiraling costs of court-appointed legal representation, the governor said he's concerned about caseloads in the new agency. Citing the North Florida office in particular, he questioned whether the office will have sufficient staff to handle 32 far-flung counties.

The governor urged lawmakers to closely monitor the new agency to ensure delivery of legal services to the poor isn't compromised. Sen. Crist promised that would be done, and additional funding would be found if necessary.

"Nothing is carved in stone," he said. "Any improvements that need to be made will be made."

But he said he doubts many smaller counties will need the new agency's services, and he said 90 percent of the work will involve simple cases that won't require "a high-end, experienced, big-gun lawyer." He said he expects the state to hire young lawyers eager to prove themselves and experienced professionals to oversee their work.

Applications for regional counsel were due Friday, but the Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission extended the deadline until July 6. A list of applicants will be available then, a spokeswoman said., (904) 359-4107

Attorneys seek evidence in death-row inamte’s appeal

Staff Writer

PUNTA GORDA -- It comes as no surprise to death row inmate Daniel Conahan's attorneys that media reports of the recent discovery of eight skeletons in a wooded area of Fort Myers have included speculation on whether Conahan could be responsible for their deaths.

But William Hennis, director of the Capital Collateral Office, which is representing Conahan in an appeal, also pointed out that if any of the Fort Myers skeletons are identified as people killed after Conahan was jailed in 1996, that would cast doubt on the state's entire case.

That's because the case against Conahan was based on circumstantial evidence linking a series of unsolved homicides and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement profile which suggested the suspect was likely a “sexual sadist.”

Both the evidence and the profile amounted to “junk science,” said Hennis today, in comments following a hearing at the Charlotte County Justice Center.

“Our claim is that Conahan was convicted in part on junk science and no DNA evidence tying him to the crime,” Hennis said.

The collateral office provides attorneys for indigent defendants who have been sentenced to death.

Conahan, 53, received that sentence in 1999 for the April 1996 murder of Richard Montgomery, a 21-year-old Charlotte Harbor-area transient.

Montgomery's body was one of five found in wooded areas of Port Charlotte and North Port between 1994 and 1996. An FDLE profiler had concluded the crimes were “behaviorally linked” because of the way they were found.

Most of them were nude, had been tied to trees, were strangled and had their genitals removed, according to affidavits in court records.

Today’s hearing was one in a series held to allow Circuit Judge Donald Pellecchia to track the progress of the State Attorney's Office and the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office in complying with the defense attorneys' requests for evidence and records in Conahan's appeal.

Conahan already has lost a direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. But he still has other appeals pending, Hennis said. State appellate courts could resolve those appeals by next year, but the case is then likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

The evidence requested by the defense includes an undercover detective's audiotape, videotapes of witness statements, and fiber and paint chip evidence, according to court records.

The fiber and paint chip evidence will be reviewed by defense experts.

Conahan was first arrested on July 3, 1996, on charges of kidnapping, sexual battery and attempted murder in a 1994 Fort Myers case.

The victim in that case, Stanley Burden, who is now serving a 25-year prison term in Ohio for sexual battery on a child, had reported to Fort Myers Police in August 1994 that Conahan had lured him into a wooded area. Conahan then tied him to a tree and tried to strangle him, Burden said.

The wooded area where Burden was taken is within a mile of where the eight skeletons were found in March.

Conahan's attorneys have listed 10 cases in which unidentified bodies were found in Charlotte County or North Port.

Those victims include “John Doe No. 7,” whose body was found in October 2000 in an area west of Toledo Blade Boulevard -- within sight of where another body, “John Doe No. 6,” had been found in May 1996.

What's intriguing is that “John Doe No. 7” had been dead for less than two years. Conahan would have been in jail at the time of his death, Hennis pointed out.

Conahan's attorneys have requested the Sheriff's Office release its records of investigations into the “John Doe” cases linked by the FDLE to Conahan's case.

But the State Attorney's Office has declared the unsolved cases exempt from public records because they represent “active investigations.”

However, both the State Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Office have been cooperating fully with the defense's other requests, said Christina Spudea, an attorney from Capital Collateral Office who is co-counsel on Conahan's case.

Today, Assistant State Attorney Bob Lee told the defense attorneys he would contact former investigator Ronnie Lee, who is now Hendry County sheriff, to try to locate a missing audiotape. The tape, recorded by Ronnie Lee, is of Charlotte County Sheriff's Detective Ray Weir talking to Conahan during several “street conversations,” Bob Lee said.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ecuadorean sentenced to death in Florida

Ecuadorean sentenced to death in Florida

By PHIL DAVIS -- Associated Press Writer
(Published: June 26, 2007)
BARTOW, Fla. (AP) A former Ecuadorean businessman was sentenced to death Tuesday for killing four people in a business dispute, despite pleas from his native country to spare his life.

Nelson Ivan Serrano, 68, was convicted last year on four counts of first-degree murder for the Dec. 3, 1997, shootings of George Gonsalves, 69; Frank Dosso, 35; Diane Patisso, 28; and George Patisso Jr., 26.

Serrano showed no reaction as Circuit Judge Susan Roberts imposed four death sentences in a hearing that lasted only a few minutes. The sentences will automatically be appealed under Florida law.

"The state felt all along that Mr. Serrano deserved the death penalty," prosecutor John Aguero said. "We feel that was an appropriate sentence."

Serrano's attorneys declined to comment.

Serrano, Gonsalves and Dosso's father were business partners at a garment conveyor factory until a dispute over finances led to Serrano's firing as company president in 1997.

Serrano was arrested in September 2002 in his native Ecuador.

In February, Ecuador's Foreign Ministry requested Serrano be returned to that country because he was "illegally" taken to the United States to face charges.

Ecuador will not extradite fugitives who are facing the death penalty in other countries, but U.S. authorities were able to use Serrano's status as a U.S. citizen to get him deported in 2002. Serrano had U.S. and Ecuadorean passports when he was arrested.

Serrano denied involvement in the killings, insisting he was in Atlanta on business at the time. Defense lawyers said there was no physical evidence connecting Serrano to the slayings and no proof he was in Polk County the night of the slayings.

Prosecutors said rage over his firing drove Serrano to mastermind an elaborate plot to kill Gonsalves and leave himself with an alibi nearly 500 miles away. Dosso and the Patissos were killed because they got in the way, prosecutors said.

In October, the jury that convicted Serrano recommended 9-3 that he be sentenced to death.

A Tale of Two Cities, and Two Organizing Strategies

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

'Twas the best of times, 'twas the . . . different best of times? OK, I think that Dickens may have failed me there. Yesterday evening, Isaac and I travelled to McKenzie and then Jackson to hold strategy sessions with groups of TCASK activists in each city to plan local campaigns for municipal moratorium resolutions. Now granted, Nashville to McKenzie to Jackson to Nashville in one night is quite a trip (fortunately, I pulled seniority and Isaac did most of the driving) but it was well worth it. In both cities we met with engaged, energized, and willing folks ready to take action to engage their communities. Both meetings were great, but our groups offered different models for our organizing.

In McKenzie, our group was based mostly at Bethel College, so mostly students and professors with lots of energy ready to wake up a small, fairly rural town. So we organize to those strengths. This group is ready to form a team to canvass local businesses for moratorium resolutions, and visit local pastors to ask them to support a moratorium effort. On top of that, they're looking to build on a new connection between the college and the local paper to gain publicity for their efforts! On the right you can see Bethel Activist Allen McQueen with Juan Melendez at last year's student conference!

In Jackson, we were lucky enough to work with a group of seasoned activists, who have a lot of terrific connections in the city and already know the members of the city council fairly well. Rather than work on beating the pavement with this group, we focused on targeting key decision makers with a sign-on letter for faith leaders and a press conference to kick off our campaign featuring Juan Melendez, the 99th death row exoneree, on his coming visit to Tennessee.

The lesson for us, as organizers, is to find the strengths of the group that you're working with and play to those, whether it's youthful energy or knowledge and connections. With TCASK, we're lucky to have both!
posted by TravelingJesuit at 9:03 AM

Man pleads guilty in 17-year-old’s murder; sentenced to life in prison


Monday, June 25, 2007

Is there sufficient justice in locking a double murderer away for the rest of his life, or is death a more fitting punishment?

The issue split Annamarie Randazzo’s parents in court Monday, when their daughter’s killer, Jeremy Chapman, signed a deal with the State Attorney’s Office and avoided the death penalty.

Chapman pleaded guilty to an array of charges in the bludgeoning deaths of Randazzo, 17, and John Hardin, 66. He will serve two consecutive life sentences in state prison without possibility of parole.

“It is the intent of this court that you never see the light of day, except through barbed wire and iron bars,” said Lee County Circuit Judge Thomas Reese. “You will never walk free among the decent people in the state of Florida again.”

Tears streamed from behind John Randazzo’s dark sunglasses during the hearing. Annamarie’s father and attorneys in the case had reportedly come to an agreement on Chapman’s plea deal.

John Randazzo declined comment as he rushed out of the courtroom after the sentencing.

Randazzo’s mother, Mercedita Walter, told Chapman during the hearing that he should have been sentenced to death.

“He can’t bring back my daughter,” she said. “I still think he needs the death penalty rather than life in prison.”

Chapman, 25, stared blankly at Walter as she spoke. He kidnapped, raped, killed and burned Randazzo on July 22, 2005. He beat his roommate, Hardin, to death with a crowbar during a robbery seven days later. Hardin did not have a family member or relative in court Monday.

Randazzo’s stepfather, Jeff Walter, said he was “shocked” that State Attorney Stephen Russell never told him or Mercedita Walter about Chapman’s plea deal. They first learned Randazzo’s killer would avoid the death penalty after speaking with a reporter.

“We found out about this deal this morning. This is another layer of disappointment in this situation, that the State Attorney’s Office did not call us directly,” said Jeff Walter. “We’re very disappointed. ... We thought there would be no deals.”

Chapman said the deal was in “his best interest,” but when asked to explain why, he said it was “kind of hard to explain” and requested to speak with one of his attorneys.

“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” said Chapman, his voice cracking. “And I have remorse.”

Later, Chapman wept as he apologized to Randazzo’s family, saying he did not expect forgiveness.

“I’d like to say that I’m so sincere when I say, from the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry,” he said. “I will never forgive myself for this and I don’t expect them to forgive me.”

As part of his agreement with the state, Chapman will testify against his alleged accomplice in the Randazzo slaying. Joshua P. Henninger was 16 when he lured Randazzo to his home, where she was beaten, bound with tape and driven to a remote location in Lehigh Acres, authorities said.

Henninger and Chapman then reportedly beat Randazzo to death and shoved her body into an abandoned refrigerator, which they set ablaze. The duo also burned Randazzo’s Ford Mustang, according to reports.

Henninger, now 18, awaits a September trial while being held in the Lee County Jail on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, arson and sexual assault with a weapon. He is exempt from the death penalty due to his age at the time of the crime.

© 2007 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.

Ex-Warden Who Executed in Florida & Texas Among Many Calling for End to Death Penalty on Historic 35th Anniversary


WASHINGTON, June 25 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ --

WHO: Former Florida State Prison Warden Ron McAndrew (Participated in executions), Former Louisiana Death Row Prisoner Moreese Bickham removed from Louisiana's death row by the Furman decision),Attorney Marshall Hartman (worked on historic Furman case), Death Row Survivors, Murder Victim Family Members, and other leaders of various anti-death penalty organizations.

WHAT: Press Conference

WHEN: NOON, Friday, June 29, 2007, the 35th Anniversary of the Historic
Furman Decision

WHERE: On the sidewalk in front of the United States Supreme Court in
Washington, DC

WHY: July 29, 2007 marks the 35th anniversary of the Furman V. Georgia decision in which the United States Supreme Court struck down all laws allowing executions in the U.S. Persons of interest noted above will join leaders of the anti-death penalty movement in speaking out about recent developments regarding the issue, noting how the death penalty continues to fail as a public policy in the United States.

July 2, 2007 marks the 31st anniversary of the Gregg V. Georgia decision in which the United States Supreme Court upheld laws written in various states to reinstate the death penalty in the wake of the Furman decision in 1972.

This press conference is part of the Annual Fast & Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty at the US Supreme Court, wherein anti-death penalty activists will converge on Washington, D.C. from Friday, June 29 through Monday, July 2 for four days of activities commemorating the historic 1972 and 1976 Supreme Court rulings that suspended the death penalty in the United States and later allowed executions to resume. This is the fourteenth year in a row that the Abolitionist Action Committee will hold its annual Fast and Vigil between the dates of these two landmark decisions. Activists, many of whom are fasting the entire four days, are travelling to Washington D.C.from across the United States and beyond.

Highlights of this highly visual and interactive annual event include live music and evening teach-ins by death row survivors, murder victim family members, and noted activists and scholars. Please see details at ://

ATTENTION REPORTERS, EDITORS AND PRODUCERS: Consider interviews with activists from your specific state or region. A press conference will be held at Noon on Friday, June 29 on the sidewalk in front of the U.S.

Supreme Court, but we are available all day and evening on June 29 and 30, and July 1 and 2. SEE THE LIST OF SCHEDULED EVENING SPEAKERS.

RAIN ALERT: In the event of rain or significant threat thereof, the press conference and other events requiring amplification will take part inside the United Methodist Church Building, immediately adjacent (across Maryland Ave. on 1st St.)

The Abolitionist Action Committee is an ad-hoc group of individuals committed to highly visible and effective public education for alternatives to the death penalty through nonviolent direct action.

Contact the AAC at:

SOURCE Abolitionist Action Committee

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hearing moves convicted quadruple-murderer closer to execution

Monday June 25th, 2007

Convicted quadruple-murderer Jeffrey Hutchinson might have moved one baby step closer Monday to his date with the executioner.

But his prosecutor said Hutchinson could remain on death row for years before that happens.

Hutchinson, who was sentenced to death Feb. 6, 2001 for the murders of the three children of his girlfriend, wasn’t present for the routine status conference.

But a date certain was set for Okaloosa County Judge G. Robert Barron to hear motions he noted had been “pending for quite some time.”

Hutchinson’s latest court appointed attorney, Tallahassee-based Clyde Taylor, said he would have an amended version of the Hutchinson motions in the court’s hands by Aug. 1.

All present for the status conference agreed an Oct. 22 hearing date would allow prosecutors and defense attorneys ample time to prepare.

Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore, who prosecuted Hutchinson for the killings of Renee Flaherty and her children, Geoffrey Flaherty, 9, Amanda Flaherty, 7, and Logan Flaherty, 4, said Hutchinson remains a long way from an execution date.

His case, Elmore said, was in no way impacted by a decision made last December to stop imposing the death penalty until improvements could be made to the process through which lethal injections are administered.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush halted executions statewide after it took Angel Diaz 34 minutes to die Dec. 13 following the injection meant to kill him.

Charlie Crist, who followed Bush into office, said last month he intends to begin signing death warrants again.

The announcement came after the state adopted 37 recommendations made by a committee that studied the way Florida’s death penalty is administered.

Hutchinson’s case is still moving through the “state post-conviction challenges,” Elmore said. Should prosecutors ultimately prevail, Hutchinson’s attorney, in all likelihood, will file a federal habeas corpus challenge, Elmore said.

“If that is denied, then the time will be ripe for the governor to sign a death warrant,” Elmore said.

Hutchinson has been on death row for more than six years, but it takes 12.86 years on average for a death row inmate to move from conviction to execution, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Hutchinson is also serving a life-without-parole sentence for the killing of Renee Flaherty.

Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin can be reached at 863-1111, Ext. 435.

Florida Executions To Resume

POSTED: 2:22 pm EDT June 24, 2007
UPDATED: 2:29 pm EDT June 24, 2007

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- As Florida prepares to resume executing convicted killers, state officials say they have made changes that will provide a humane and dignified death.

But death penalty opponents and defense attorneys said the state has not gone far enough to solve the problems in the Angel Diaz execution last December. Needles punctured his veins and it took twice as long for him to die as other executions. Executions in the state were halted pending an investigation.

Since then, a state commission has made 37 recommendations to the Florida Department of Corrections, which have been implemented.

The changes include more training for the execution team, changes to the death chamber and careful monitoring of the execution process.

It's not clear when Gov. Charlie Crist will sign his first death warrant

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Statewide effort to fight gangs


The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a special grand jury to investigate gang-related crimes, prompting high marks from local law enforcers — though some remained unclear how the initiative would work with their own efforts. While the grand jury will probe crime statewide, the counties included in the specified judicial circuits are Indian River, Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Broward, along with five others in Southwest Florida.

Those counties were chosen as bases because jurors there are seen as representative of the population and because of gang issues there, said William Shepherd, statewide prosecutor for the Attorney General's office.

"I think that there are gang problems developing throughout Florida, and part of what we want to do through this is seek indictments on specific gangs and work with our law enforcement partners to develop best practice strategies," Shepherd said. "The answer of where's the gang problem the worst is wherever a gang anywhere in our state has just committed a homicide or committed an act of violence."

Asked how the 12-month grand jury would affect the work of local law enforcement agencies, he said, "It just gives them another opportunity and another venue to work in conjunction with a prosecutorial agency, to sort of step back from the case and take a bigger picture look at it."

A Gang Prevention Task Force was formed in Sebastian earlier this year after concerns were raised about possible gang activity, mainly involving spray painting, around the Barber Street Sports Complex. There also have been reports of similar incidents in Fellsmere. And in May, four students were arrested for two gang-related incidents at the Vero Beach High School campus.

Martin County Sheriff Robert Crowder said gangs in his county are "trying to creep in," but they don't have a "chronic presence" because his deputies are maintaining pressure.

"Being able to look more clearly at the larger perspective on this gang problem, I think it will help us to be more effective statewide," he said.

To be considered for prosecution purposes by this special grand jury, a crime must have aspects that cross circuit boundaries. The 19th judicial circuit includes Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties.

"At this point we don't know what type of impact Governor Christ's grand jury will have on Fort Pierce," Fort Pierce police Sgt. Dennis McWilliams said. "We are hopeful it will have a positive effect on the number of gangs in Fort Pierce and gang-related crime."

In general, gangs have been in Fort Pierce since the late 1980s and have been linked to some of the city's most violent crimes, including homicides and shootings. More than 400 gang members live in Fort Pierce, ranging from pre-teens to those in their late 30s, said Kathy Grace, police crime analyst who specializes in gang intelligence.

"Most recently in the headlines have been the challenges that West Palm Beach is having with gang violence, but the truth is it's a statewide problem," St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said. "We're either suffering from direct effects or indirect effects of gangs. I think that this was a wise move by the governor to empower a grand jury to look at this across the state."

In Okeechobee County, Detective Sgt. Brad Stark, his agency's sole investigator dedicated to street crime and gang probes, said there are about eight gangs with 250 members. Gangs have been in Okeechobee County for at least 13 years, he said.

"I don't know how a legislative grand jury is going to help a small, rural county like Okeechobee County," he said. "If they can come up with some kind of action or plan, then I'm all for it ... We are seeking grants for gang investigations. We have been unsuccessful."



Crist on Crime

Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law Wednesday a handful of anti-crime bills, while also asking the Florida Supreme Court to convene a statewide grand jury to investigate a recent rise in gang-related violence.

"Nothing is more important than public safety," Crist said, echoing a line he used frequently during last fall's campaign, when his bid for the state's Republican nomination pivoted on his anti-crime stance. "The founding fathers understood it. It's in the first line of the Constitution: To ensure domestic tranquility."

The legislation Crist signed toughens state sanctions against sex offenders, drunk drivers, crimes against law enforcement personnel and cybercrimes involving adults who prey on children. The latter measure also will be advanced by the state's expansion of a Child Predator/Cybercrime Unit started under then-Attorney General Crist in 2005, and which state lawmakers agreed to expand this year to 55 staffers, up from its current 5.

"This will make for certain that child predators know that if they're coming to Florida to do business, they're going to be caught and they're going to be punished in a major way," said Attorney General Bill McCollum.

The legislation signed Wednesday includes:

SB 988: Requires new markings on drivers licenses and state identification cards issued to those termed sexual offenders by the courts;

SB 1004: Orders sexual offenders to register all e-mail addresses and instant-message names with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Tougher criminal penalties also are set for those who misrepresent their age when soliciting children on the Internet and for traveling to meet minors to commit crimes of sexual abuse;

SB 1604: Brings Florida in compliance with the federala Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act;

HB 409: Strengthens penalties for crimes committed against law enforcement officers on duty;

HB 25: Increases penalties for drunk drivers who leave the scene of an accident and for those who commit manslaughter. Restitution also would have to be paid to victims or their survivors.

The statewide grand jury Crist is asking Florida justices to empanel would meet for a year and investigate gang-related criminal activity across Florida. Counties named for purposes of selecting jurors include most of South Florida, suggesting that much of the panel's attention will be focused there.

McCollum's office, though, said the jury would also be following leads statewide and also could issue criminal indictments that would be prosecuted outside the South Florida region.

"What we're seeing is that no one is immune to this," said Statewide Prosecutor William Shepherd.

UPDATE: The Florida Supreme Court approved Crist's request for a statewide grand jury Wednesday afternoon. Justices named Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Kathleen Kroll to preside over the panel.

Florida plans to resume executions despite criticism of changes

June 23, 2007

Associated Press Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Strapped to a gurney in the lethal injection chamber at Florida State Prison, Angel Diaz felt the poison flowing into his arms and awaited his death. But it didn't come quickly.

"What's happening?" the convicted murderer twice asked as his Dec. 13 execution dragged on. Witnesses had the same question and some thought he was in pain. Diaz appeared to grimace and he turned his head to the side, mouthing words, his chest rising and falling.

Something was wrong - the IV needles had been pushed completely through his veins and the poison that was supposed to kill him quickly was collecting in the muscles of his arms. It took 34 minutes for Diaz to die, about twice as long as normal.

The botched death caused then-Gov. Jeb Bush to halt executions and ask a commission to suggest improvements to the procedure. New Gov. Charlie Crist said last month he will sign death warrants again after the state followed 37 recommendations from the panel, including additional training for execution teams and installing video cameras, a communications system and better lighting in the death chamber.

It's unclear when Crist will act, and death penalty opponents and attorneys for Florida's 376 condemned men continue to challenge lethal injections in court because they say the changes are not enough. They claim too much of the process remains shrouded in secrecy and the execution teams still lack proper medical training.

They also cite medical studies that the three chemicals used can cause excruciating pain that probably violates constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.

Florida is not alone with death row problems: lethal injections are on hold in seven other states and most challenges deal with the chemical cocktail used in executions.

But Florida prison officials say lethal injections give inmates a "humane and dignified death." Corrections Secretary James McDonough said his department determined the chemical cocktail "was working well" after reviewing the procedures of 37 other states, the federal government and Florida's 20 lethal injections.

In future executions, he said, officials will closely monitor the IV tubes and look for signs of red streaks on inmates' arms. In addition, gurneys holding inmates will not be moved after the IV tubes are inserted. McDonough believes gurney movement caused the needles to come out of Diaz' veins.

He said he couldn't guarantee that executions would be free of human error, but the extra training will make problems less likely. The state has not released specifics of the additional education. Costs for the training and chamber renovations are $44,000, Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.

McDonough said those involved in inserting the needles "are medically qualified people. The person that did the Diaz execution is highly experienced in the insertion of needles on a daily basis." Medical ethics bar doctors and other health professionals from taking part in executions.

A death penalty opponent, Dr. Jonathan I. Groner, clinical professor of surgery at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, said Florida is again inviting more problems.

"Florida's lethal injection procedure remains fundamentally flawed. The new protocol does nothing more than create the illusion that the procedure has improved," Groner said.

The state commission also suggested, but did not require, "exploring other more recently developed chemicals for use in a lethal injection." Corrections officials will continue to use the same ones: sodium pentothal, which is an anesthetic; pancuronium bromide, a nerve blocker and muscle paralyze; and potassium chloride, a drug to stop the heart.

Each is supposed to be capable of killing by itself, but if not, the anesthetic is supposed to make the inmate unconscious while the other drugs do the job.

Recently published research from the University of Miami School of Medicine suggests that inmates "may have been inadequately anesthetized during injection and may die of pancuronium-induced asphyxiation," Groner said.

Defense attorneys representing death row inmates remain skeptical of the new procedures and are waiting to see who Crist will choose as the next inmate to die.

"I think there are so many things that weren't dealt with," said D. Todd Doss, an attorney who represents several death row inmates.

Martin McClain, another defense attorney, said he is worried about part of the new procedure that lets the warden determine if the inmate is unconscious after the first drug is injected. "That's my concern - to guarantee that a person is unconscious," McClain said. "I don't know if they have solved that problem or not."

Lethal injection has been adopted by 37 states as a cheaper and more humane alternative to the electric chair, gas chambers and other execution methods.

Seven states - Arkansas, California, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Dakota - have placed executions on hold because of issues dealing with the constitutionality of lethal injection, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Similar challenges about seven years ago to Florida's "Old Sparky" electric chair led the state to switch to lethal injection.

"There is no doubt that the crimes that some of these people committed are heinous, but is seems that our government could better spend its time and the taxpayer's money finding out ways to punish criminals and protect the public - not endorsing a flawed state-sponsored execution system," said Brandon Hensler, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida.

State Sen. Victor Crist, chairman of the criminal and civil justice appropriations committee, said most voters want capital punishment and lethal injection is the most humane method. He said he doubted courts would find lethal injection unconstitutional.

"No matter what method we use, those who oppose the death penalty, the abolitionists, will find a reason to try to find it cruel and unusual and shut the process down," said the Tampa Republican, who is not related to the governor.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Death penalty upheld for killer of teenager

Posted on Fri, Jun. 22, 2007

Ronnie Keith Williams will die by lethal injection for the rape and murder of a pregnant teenager that left her unborn child severely impaired, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

On Jan. 26, 1993, eight months after being released from prison because of overcrowding, Williams attacked 18-year-old Lisa Dyke in Wilton Manors.

He stabbed her 18 times in a violent frenzy that permanently injured her unborn child.

One of the knife wounds penetrated the pregnant woman's womb and cut her baby's leg. Dyke lived 19 days after the attack and doctors delivered her son, Julius, before she died.

Today, Julius must breathe and eat through tubes.

He cannot talk or move his limbs without help.

A jury voted 11-1 to recommend that he be executed, but the Florida Supreme Court granted him a new trial because of an error by a juror. Williams was convicted again in 2004 and given another death sentence.


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rodgers gets death penalty

State high court threw out previous sentence in killing

Louis Cooper

For the second time, convicted murderer Jeremiah Rodgers has been sentenced to die for the 1998 death of Pace High School senior Jennifer Robinson.

Circuit Judge Paul Rasmussen imposed the same sentence Wednesday that he delivered in 2000. The Florida Supreme Court threw out the original death sentence last year, citing improperly handled evidence, and ordered a new penalty phase.

Rodgers' new death sentence is subject to an automatic review by the state Supreme Court.

Rasmussen said the crimes Rodgers is convicted of meet the "cold, calculated and premeditated" standard that must be present to impose the death penalty.

Rodgers and co-defendant Jon Lawrence were convicted of killing Robinson, an 18-year-old woman just days away from graduating. Lawrence also received the death penalty for that slaying.

They also were convicted of killing Justin Livingston, Lawrence's mentally disabled cousin. Both are serving life sentences for that crime.

In addition, Rodgers and Lawrence were convicted for the attempted murder of Leighton Smitherman, whom the duo selected randomly and shot through Smitherman's living room window. Smitherman survived.

"It would appear from the evidence that the defendant was on a killing spree in Northwest Florida, for reasons only known to the defendant," Rasmussen said, reading from his sentencing order. "The defendant killed Jennifer Robinson for no other apparent reason than the thrill of doing it."

Robinson's mother, Diane Robinson, was in the courtroom Wednesday with a group of family and friends.

"I'm so glad this is over," she said. "I know, if he's ever executed, he will never hurt anyone else. No one will ever have to feel what all of us have felt."

Rodgers had lured Jennifer Robinson to a remote area of North Santa Rosa County on the pretense of a date, although Lawrence came along, according to court testimony and documents.

The two men deliberately got Robinson drunk. Rodgers then used Lawrence's gun to shoot her in the back of the head. Lawrence molested her body, and both men mutilated it before leaving it in a shallow grave in the woods.

"The common theme in the defendant's actions was a plan to kill human beings for reasons known only to the defendant and his co-defendant," the judge said. "They had even discussed these random killings two years prior while both were in prison."

Rasmussen rejected defense claims that Rodgers' various mental disorders contributed to the crimes and that he was under Lawrence's domination at the time of the crimes.

The judge, however, gave some consideration to the fact that Lawrence has a history of being sexually and physically abused by his parents.

"The court agrees that the environment within which the defendant was raised and the treatment he received at the hands of his mother and father was abhorrent and undoubtedly contributed to his early problems with the criminal justice system," Rasmussen said. "Although defendant's family history and background clearly does not excuse or establish a defense for what he did, it must be considered" when setting a sentence.

Justin Livingston's mother, Elizabeth Livingston, was also at the sentencing.

"I am very happy," she said. "I hope the next time I see him is at his execution."

Diane Robinson bemoaned the legal system that has allowed Rodgers' case to be so drawn out.

"I just don't think it's fair for people to have to go through this over and over and over," she said. "I know there are innocent people in prison. I understand that. But when there's so much evidence, so many confessions, it makes no sense to me why so much money is spent over and over and over. He admits he did it. I don't understand."

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Medical examiner in boot camp case gets interim appointment

Posted on Tue, Jun. 19, 2007

An embattled medical examiner was granted an interim appointment Tuesday, days after the state Medical Examiners Commission voted to remove him from his post as medical examiner for six Panhandle counties.

Dr. Charles Siebert, will keep his job for roughly 90 days while a search committee looks for a replacement, State Attorney Steve Meadows ruled.

"I will not sacrifice Charles Siebert on the altar of political expediency or correctness," Meadows said Tuesday. "Despite what amounts to a reckless character assassination by some media outlets and, regrettably, even some members of our government, I believe Dr. Siebert to be a competent and thorough medical examiner - not beholden to anyone or any cause. Quite simply, Dr. Siebert is a well-qualified doctor doing his best to serve the people of this district."

The state Medical Examiners Commission voted last week to remove Siebert from his post as medical examiner for the six Panhandle counties, saying it had concerns about his honesty. The panel voted last month not to recommend his reappointment.

Siebert said he plans to reapply for his job and appeal the commission's decision to remove him from office.

"It's going to be a difficult road, but I'm going to give it a shot," Siebert told The Associated Press.

The Medical Examiners Commission will review candidates and make a recommendation to Gov. Charlie Crist for approval.

Siebert was criticized for his disputed autopsy on a teenager who died after an altercation with guards at a juvenile boot camp last year.

"The local support has been tremendous. The people I work for and with have been supportive all along and that's what keeps me going everyday and that's what I want to come back for," Siebert said.

Siebert performed the first autopsy on 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who died after being roughed up by guards at the Panama City boot camp. A report presented to the commission said Siebert likely made several missteps in his initial assessment of Anderson's death.

Siebert ruled that the teen died of natural complications of sickle cell trait. But a second autopsy found he died because the guards covered his mouth and held ammonia capsules to his nose. Siebert has stood by his initial opinion.

Seven guards and a nurse employed at the camp face manslaughter charges for Anderson's death. Trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 3 and last two weeks, Circuit Judge Michael Overstreet ruled Tuesday. Jury selection was set for Sept. 24 and 25.

The Legislature last month awarded Anderson's family $5 million in compensation.

Last year, the commission, in an administrative complaint, found Siebert was negligent in performing 39 of 698 autopsies it reviewed.

A telephone call to the state attorney's office was not immediately returned Tuesday night.

McDonough assesses progress in cleaning up prisons' problems

Posted on Tue, Jun. 19, 2007

Florida's prisons have been rid of organized corruption by officials trying to game the system, Corrections Secretary James McDonough said Tuesday.

McDonough told The Associated Press there may still be intermittent wrongdoing by individual employees, but that institutionalized lawlessness he brought in to clean up has been weeded out. Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed McDonough 16 months ago after his predecessor, James Crosby, was indicted.

Crosby and a top lieutenant are in federal prison after being convicted of accepting bribes in a kickback scheme.

"I think he somehow convinced himself he was above it, that he was untouchable and, of course, he was not," McDonough said.

McDonough said it was very difficult at first, beginning a job in an office cordoned off with police tape as a crime area and not knowing any of the agency's employees.

"You don't know who to trust," said McDonough, who took the job despite having no background in prison management.

After a 27-year Army career as an infantry officer with stops in Vietnam, Bosnia and Rwanda, the retired colonel served several years as Florida's drug czar before being picked by Bush to fix the state's scandal-ridden prison system.

And he knows there is still resistance to some of his proposed changes.

"Even in normal times, organizations are resistant to change," said McDonough.

He created a stir among many of his officers earlier this year when he announced a plan aimed at getting many of the agency's 27,000 employees to get into better physical condition by 2009 when they'll be asked to prove they're fit enough to keep their jobs.

Officers who fail the test will have six months in a remedial program to reach the minimum goals before being moved to another, less strenuous job in the department if one is available.

Just a month after taking charge in February 2006, McDonough fired the warden in charge of Florida State Prison where the state conducts executions and the No. 2 official at the prison system's medical center along with seven other top officials.

Shortly after that he yanked a $645 million prison health care contract signed in 2006 that he claimed the state was losing money on.

And he cleaned house at the Hendry Correctional Institution after learning an inmate had been beaten and choked by guards in March. Eight of the 13 prison employees fired from the medium and minimum security prison in the Everglades also face criminal charges. The previous warden and an assistant warden resigned, and three others were reassigned.

A West Point graduate, McDonough's also trying to restore confidence in the state's method of executing its worst offenders following a botched execution shortly before he was named secretary in February 2006.

McDonough said the condemned inmates still deserve a "humane and dignified" death.

He still faces turnover issues, particularly in South Florida, and wants to find a better way to treat mentally ill people who are in the system.

"It's really a major social issue," McDonough said. "Just think how bleak it is in prison."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Decision on death penalty may come soon for Escobedo suspects

June 16, 2007

WEST PALM BEACH — Within two weeks, the U.S. Attorney's Office will decide whether to recommend pursuing the death penalty against murder suspects Ricardo Sanchez Jr. and Daniel Troya, a federal prosecutor announced Friday.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should make the final decision by Labor Day, said Steve Carlton, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the suspects. The men are charged in the shooting deaths of Greenacres residents Jose and Yessica Escobedo and their two young sons, whose bodies were found on the side of Florida's Turnpike in Port St. Lucie on Oct. 13, 2006.

Carlton and attorneys for the two men and four others — indicted by a grand jury in connection with a related drug operation — met Friday morning before U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley.

During the meeting, to discuss the status of the federal case, the attorneys agreed with Hurley's decision to move the tentative trial date for all six defendants from October to February.

The delay is necessary so the law is "meticulously followed" to protect the "due process rights of all parties," charged with these "very, very serious crimes," Hurley said.

To get the case moving, Hurley asked the appointed attorneys to meet with one another and establish a budget for defending the suspects with added projected costs if the death penalty is sought for Sanchez and Troya. Part of those funds will pay for the hiring of mitigation experts so defense attorneys may investigate Sanchez and Troya's backgrounds and establish factors that could help argue against the death penalty.

In April, Sanchez and Troya were indicted and pleaded not guilty to a variety of drug charges and two charges that could ultimately lead to execution: armed carjacking resulting in death and using a firearm in a crime of violence resulting in death.

According to St. Lucie County sheriff's reports, Jose Luis Escobedo, 28, and his fugitive brother ran one of the largest cocaine rings in the eastern United States. Sanchez, Troya and the other indicted suspects in the case — Danny Varela, Juna C. Gutierrez, Liana Lee Lopez and West Palm Beach resident Kevin Vetere — worked with or for him.

At about 2:15 a.m. Oct. 13, Sanchez and Troya had Escobedo stop his black Jeep Cherokee on the side of the turnpike in Port St. Lucie. Jose Escobedo and his 25-year-old wife and sons, Luis Damien, 4, and Luis Julian, 3, were shot between 20 and 50 times before Troya, in a burgundy van, and Sanchez, in the Jeep, sped off.

The Jeep was found three days later, abandoned in West Palm Beach. Drug ledgers in the Escobedo family's home and cell phone records between Sanchez and Jose Escobedo eventually led detectives to the suspects, according to reports.

The drug charges against the suspects stem from activity connected to Jose Escobedo's alleged drug ring, spanning from about May 4 to Oct. 25, 2006, according to the indictment.

Varela, Gutierrez, Lopez and Vetere all face up to life in prison.

None of the defendants appeared in court Friday, but all were represented by counsel.

Although an additional attorney specializing in death penalty cases has yet to be secured for Sanchez, West Palm Beach attorney James L. Eisenberg made an appearance as Troya's newly appointed death penalty counsel.

And he did not appear overly optimistic about the impending result of Gonzales' decision.

"With this administration, the odds are this is a death penalty case," he said after the hearing.

Unless an additional hearing is requested, the attorneys and Hurley will not meet again in court until October.


Ricardo Sanchez Jr., 23 (aka "Rick"): Various illegal drug charges and carjacking conspiracy, armed carjacking resulting in death and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence resulting in death

Daniel Troya, 24 (aka "Homer"): Various illegal drug charges and carjacking conspiracy, armed carjacking resulting in death and use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence resulting in death

Danny Varela, 26 (aka "D.V."): Various illegal drug and firearm possession charges

Liana Lee Lopez, 19 (aka "Negra"): Various illegal drug charges

Juan C. Gutierrez, 20 (aka "Flaco"): Various illegal drug charges

Kevin Vetere, 23: Conspiracy to possess cocaine with the intent to distribute.

Slain deputy’s family torn by verdicts

Deplores rejectionof death penalty
Updated: 06/19/07 7:42 AM

The man who killed West Seneca native and Florida Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Fatta in an ambush three years ago likely will die in prison — following a federal jury’s split verdict that has left the family with mixed feelings.

Last week, a federal jury in South Florida rejected the death penalty against Kenneth Wilk, 45, after convicting him of first-degree murder a week earlier.

Wilk shot and killed Fatta, 33, a West Seneca West High School graduate and a deputy with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, as the deputy served a search warrant looking for child pornography in Wilk’s Fort Lauderdale home in August 2004.

“We feel justice has been done,” Joseph L. Fatta, the deputy’s brother, said Monday by phone from Florida. “However, we are greatly disappointed with the jury not giving him the death penalty. We feel there would be a lot better closure that way.”

The jury’s ruling against the death penalty left Fatta’s mother doubled over in her courtroom seat, sobbing, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

“My son is buried in a crypt, and he [Wilk] gets life,” Josephine Fatta said, according to newspaper and family accounts. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”

Fatta’s brother explained why the family feels that way.

“The death penalty is part of the law,” he said. “We felt with the overwhelming amount of evidence, the death penalty was appropriate. If there was ever justice for the death penalty, this was it.”

In arguing for the death penalty, Joseph Fatta cited both the ambush and Wilk’s well-documented hatred for police officers. Prosecutors have claimed that Wilk wanted to harm police officers for what he claimed were unfair child pornography charges against his lover.

“It’s like treating cancer,” Joseph Fatta said. “You try to radiate it, to remove it. You can’t feel sorry for it and leave part of it behind. You have to remove it.”

But Joseph Fatta also said his family appreciates that Wilk was convicted of first-degree murder, meaning that he now is sentenced to life in prison.

“We’re definitely pleased that this man will be put away without the opportunity to be released,” he said. “He definitely will die in prison. We are happy that he won’t be on the streets.”

Wilk has AIDS, and his attorney had argued that the federal government was wasting its resources pursuing the death penalty against such a sick man.

“I shouldn’t feel pity for that,” Joseph Fatta said. “Those were his choices. It was his choice to practice unprotected sex. It was his choice to live with a gay partner who pursued 11- and 12-year-old boys. Whatever choices he made were selfinflicted.”

Todd Fatta was a 1989 graduate of West Seneca West. After earning his associate’s degree in criminal justice from Erie Community College, he went into the Air Force, serving as an Air Police officer in Albuquerque, N.M., before joining the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in 1995, his family said.

Among the survivors are his parents, Joseph and Josephine; two sisters, Colleen and Linda Kirtley; and his brother, Joseph.

“Todd would not only want us to go on, but he would demand that we do so,” his older brother said. “It tore us apart to sit in the courtroom every day and relive the horrific events. We felt anger, sadness and disbelief, but we are grateful it is all over.

“And we feel Todd is with us.”

Teen arrested on first-degree murder charge

Pedro Ruz
The Orlando Sentinel

June 14, 2007

A 17-year-old was arrested early this morning on a first-degree murder charge after Orlando police say he fatally shot a 16-year-old male victim Wednesday night.

The shooting occurred at about 10:30 p.m. near the intersection of Lee Avenue and Anderson Street. When police arrived, Jhymy Jean Gustin was found lying on the roadway with a gunshot wound. He died later at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Overnight, police located and questioned two people near South Street.

'During the investigation, Julius Martin...was identified as the person responsible for the murder,' said police spokeswoman Sgt. Barbara Jones. 'The motive as to this murder is not clear at this time.'

Martin was to be booked later this morning at the Orange County Jail.

Orlando teen sentenced to 60 years for stabbing classmate

The Associated Press

A 17-year-old boy was sentenced to 60 years in prison for fatally stabbing a classmate at a high school bus stop.

Circuit Judge Marc Lubet sentenced Kelvin De La Cruz on Friday. A jury convicted the teenager of second-degree murder in April for stabbing 15-year-old Michael Nieves.

De La Cruz was spared a mandatory life sentence when the jury passed on a first-degree murder conviction.

"By my calculations, you'll be close to 70 when you get out of prison, and perhaps then you won't be a danger to society anymore," Lubet told De La Cruz in the courtroom.

Authorities said the argument began at lunch over a girl and continued at a bus stop on the University High School campus last October.

De La Cruz maintains that he stabbed Nieves in self defense. His lawyers have a hearing scheduled Friday for a motion for a new trial.

De La Cruz's mother and older sister, present in the courtroom, sobbed as the sentence was read.

"You think 60 years is better than life in prison, but no," his older sister, Claribel Ramirez, said afterward. "For us and my family, in a way my brother is dead too. We can only see him on a TV and talk to him on the telephone."

Nieves' family and friends hugged each other after the sentencing.

"Justice was served," said Carmen Salicrup, the slain boy's mother.


Information from: Orlando Sentinel,">


Polk's top whodunit agent
Amy L. Edwards
Sentinel Staff Writer

June 17, 2007

When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement needs a cold-case homicide solved in Polk County, there's one investigator they turn to -- Special Agent Tommy Ray. With 34 years of law-enforcement experience, 20 of which have been logged with the FDLE, Ray has played a role in solving about a dozen cold cases. Ray spent nearly a decade investigating the worst mass murder in Polk County history -- the Nelson Serrano case. Serrano was convicted in October in the slayings of four people, including his former business partner and a prosecutor. A jury recommended that Serrano receive the death penalty. He will be sentenced next week. Ray spoke with Sentinel reporter Amy L. Edwards.

What is the most challenging aspect of working cold cases?

Cold cases can be very labor- and time-intensive and may require innovative investigative techniques. Cold cases with no physical evidence, or key witnesses who are hard to locate or deceased, at that point you have to rely on your interview skills and hope for a confession from a suspect.

What is the greatest aspect of working cold cases?

The best part when you solve a cold case is for the victim's family. Just the joy and the amount of closure it's able to bring to the victim's family. You know, when someone's murdered, the family members, they never get over it, but it's just a small part of the closure or at least the healing process.

What case has had the most impact on your life and why?

Without a doubt the Nelson Serrano case, because it's such a senseless homicide. Four victims -- all over greed and money. And the victims, they were just unbelievable people as far as character. They're the kind of people that you would definitely want to be associated with. . . . You hope your family are as good as what the victims were.

Can anyone get away with murder?

I think they'll always be caught. I don't think there's such a thing as the perfect crime. There are crimes that just go undetected for years and years but eventually, especially with the new technology -- we're going back now, and cases are being solved that are 25 and 30 years old.

Has DNA technology made your job easier?

It has. To me, the DNA is the best thing that's come along since fingerprints. Now, almost monthly there's some advances in the DNA. What used to take maybe a spoonful of blood or other body fluids to get DNA results, now we can get it from a pin-drop size.

What's the longest you've spent working on a case?

It was Serrano -- 91/2 years.

Why do you think the public is fascinated with cold cases?

They say they get caught up in the emotions [and] the victim's families. Like all of us, they want to see some kind of conclusion to it. And they're fascinated by the way and the technology that's come out now that these cases are solved. Although that causes problems, because a lot of the jurors now have that CSI [TV show] effect.

Woman charged with murder after trying to blame her son

Article published Jun 13, 2007
Jun 13, 2007

The Associated Press
A Central Florida woman told her 19-year-old son that she loved him and would stand by him after he was arrested for killing her husband. But now authorities think she is the real killer and framed her son for the crime.

Rhonda Marie Sands' husband, Everette Lema, 50, was found stabbed to death on May 2, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Prosecutors have dropped a murder charge against Sands' son, DeShane Sands. He was arrested the day after the killing, based largely on reports from his mother.

While in custody, authorities recorded a phone call between the mother and son, according to court records.

"I love you, Shane, and I'm gonna be here for you," Rhonda Sands said during the call.

But two neighbors told authorities that Rhonda Sands confessed to killing her husband to them, according to court records.

And while DeShane Sands initially refused to talk to authorities, on June 1 he told them he was innocent and suspected his mother was the killer.

DeShane Sands also had an alibi. His girlfriend said he was at her house the night of the slaying, according to court records.

A Sheriff's Office spokesman would not answer questions about the case Tuesday, saying it was still under investigation.

On Monday, a judge ordered DeShane Sands released, but he remained in the Seminole County Jail Tuesday evening. He was awaiting transfer to the Orange County Jail, where he was charged of violating the terms of probation in an unrelated case.

Rhonda Sands, 43, was being held without bond Tuesday night in the Seminole County Jail on a first-degree murder charge.


Information from: Orlando Sentinel,

Attorney quits Sly murder case


Law puts hardship on appointed lawyers, attorneys say
Murder defendant Jeremy Sly's court-appointed attorney quit his case Monday, citing a "major financial hardship" caused by a new law affecting the way court-appointed attorneys get paid.

And some attorneys are suggesting Sly's judge may have a difficult time finding another one to appoint in the months ahead.

The new law, signed by Gov. Charlie Crist May 24, created a bureaucracy to provide attorneys for indigent defendants in cases where the Public Defender's Office can't take the cases because of a conflict of interest.

The law calls for the state to establish five law offices statewide to provide attorneys who would work as state employees representing the indigent defendants. The five offices are to begin providing attorneys in October.

The problem now is, the law also puts more stringent limits on the state's compensation for private court-appointed attorneys, said Sly's attorney, John D. Mills of Fort Myers.

In particular, the law would cut the rate that can be paid to court-appointed attorneys for death-penalty cases from $125 per hour to $100 per hour. Also, the attorneys would have to wait until the cases are concluded before they can receive the compensation.

So Mills would have to wait until Sly goes through a trial and sentencing -- a process expected to take two years or longer --to get paid.

The law abolished the state's current system, in which court-appointed attorneys can get paid 80 percent of their billings after the first year on a case, and the final 20 percent after the case is concluded.

Sly, 37, is serving a life prison term for a November 1991 Collier County murder. He was arrested in February on charges that he murdered an elderly Port Charlotte couple on Dec. 19, 1991. Sly also has been accused of killing a father and his three stepchildren in North Port that same night.

Mills, in his motion to withdraw from Sly's case, argued he would have to travel to interview Sly, who is currently incarcerated in the Dade Correctional Institution. Mills said he would also have to investigate the other murders to prepare for trial.
Mills said waiting until the case is over for compensation would make his law practice unprofitable. He said it would be "impossible" to concentrate on Sly's case as a result.

Circuit Judge Lynne Dailey agreed.

There are only five attorneys in the five-county 20th Judicial Circuit who have qualified to accept court-appointed death-penalty cases. Mills said the other attorneys are also considering not accepting new cases because of the law.

Paul Sullivan, a Punta Gorda attorney, said he will no longer accept such cases after the new law becomes effective July 1. In part, that's because he already has been appointed to two murder cases. It's also because of the compensation limits under the new law, he said.

"It's not economically feasible," Sullivan said.

He pointed out that lawyers have office operating expenses to pay.

"We're hearing a lot of court-appointed lawyers expressing a lot of concern about what's going to happen," said A. Russell Smith, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The association lobbied against the legislation last spring.

Smith cited the way the Justice Administration Commission, an executive agency that disburses funding for the courts, has begun to implement the law.

The JAC has told attorneys if they want to receive new court-appointed cases after July 1, they'd have to accept the new compensation limits -- even for their current court-appointed cases.

The limits include a series of flat fees for cases ranging from $750 for a third-degree felony case to $15,000 for a death-penalty case.

In some cases, the flat fees in the new law are higher than the fees in the current law. For example, the fee for death-penalty cases is currently only $3,000.

However, judges can now routinely approve higher charges. The new law establishes more restrictive criteria for approving such extraordinary compensation, Smith said.

"Our biggest fear is that innocent people charged with crimes they didn't commit will languish in jail because good lawyers won't work for these rates," Smith said.
Kenneth Kellum, spokesman for the courts in the 20th circuit, said judges have not experienced a problem appointing attorneys so far.

"I'm not saying it won't happen," Kellum said. "It's quite a radical change. I'm sure there's going to be some glitches."

The law was proposed this year to stem a steep rise in the costs for court-appointed criminal attorneys, which now exceed $50 million.

Under the law, a state law office would be established in each of the state's five appellate court districts. Each office would be allotted 38 attorneys for criminal "conflict" cases. Their salaries would be capped at $80,000.

In Southwest Florida, the 38 attorneys would handle cases in 13 counties from Polk to Collier.

Sullivan doubts that's enough attorneys.

"I don't see how 38 people can be in all the courthouses at the same time and still be able to get ready for trials and hearings," Sullivan said.

Staff Writer

Board hears charges about FDLE and restores Pinellas Park man's rights


TALLAHASSEE -- The clemency board heard a story involving diamonds, corrupt law enforcement agents and Israeli security before granting a full pardon Thursday to a man who said he was not a criminal, just someone who made a mistake trying to recoup money lost in a scam.

The board, led by Gov. Charlie Crist, also heard testimony from former Gov. Claude Kirk in defense of Michael Peros, who owns a Pinellas Park electronic surveillance company and said he was set up by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents 17 years ago.

Peros' story goes like this: In 1989 he and his wife earned more than $4 million on a product he invented and sold to Sharper Image. They sought to invest $150,000 in diamonds only to find they had been ripped off.

"After realizing we had been conned out of our money by an FDLE agent by the name of Nik Vissokovsky, we decided to set up a sting operation because we were in dire straits to pay our taxes," Peros said.

Vissokovsky was not an agent, but rather an informant, according to FDLE. Vissokovsky told investigators he had loaned Peros $55,000, and Peros explained that he had used the loan and diamonds to purchase 30 kilograms of cocaine that was later stolen.

Vissokovsky later arranged to buy diamonds from Peros for $90,000 in a meeting FDLE monitored. But Peros said Thursday he was the one that was set up, though he acknowledged that his sting operation was a "total, total mistake."

"The FDLE agent ran off with the diamonds. A day later they fabricated evidence against me, they threw me in jail," Peros told Crist.

Not so, said the FDLE.

"Mr. Peros' claims that FDLE agents were involved in fabricating evidence or stealing diamonds are completely false. Mr. Peros was defrauded by members of his own criminal network as he engaged in cocaine trafficking," said department spokeswoman Heather Smith.

Peros was before the board because he wanted to restore his right to carry a gun.

"I'd like to get my rights back because I'm going into very hostile areas of the Middle East and I need that protection," Peros said.

Kirk, a Republican governor who served from 1967 to 1971, testified in Peros' support.

"The entire government of Israel has given this man all their confidence and trust," Kirk said.

Without question, Crist granted the pardon with no objection from the other clemency board members -- Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.

Court date set for Couey

By Dave Pieklik

A July 17 court date has been set to hear arguments about whether John Couey is mentally retarded, and, if not, to determine if he should be executed for killing 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa.

The hearings have been scheduled for 1 p.m. at the Citrus County Courthouse in Circuit Judge Ric Howard’s courtroom. The hearings follow the March 7 conviction in Miami of Couey, 48, on charges of premeditated murder, kidnapping, sexual battery and burglary.

The same 12-person jury decided a week later Couey should be sentenced to death by lethal injection for raping and burying alive the Homosassa Elementary School third-grader in February 2005. The conviction came after the Feb. 12 start of the trial at the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, which led to several weeks of trying to find jurors who wouldn’t have problems being sequestered for possibly several weeks, or who hadn’t heard extensive details about the case.

Couey, a convicted sex offender, was accused of breaking into a mobile home Feb. 24, 2005, that Jessica shared with her family. Witnesses said he took her to his home, raped her, held her captive for a short time and killed her out of fear of getting caught.

Coverage of the case gained international attention and sparked the passage of tougher laws against sexual predators and offenders in Florida and numerous other states.

Eventually, a jury in the case was picked and testimony and closing arguments took just four days to complete. The jury’s recommendation of death by lethal injection set the stage for Howard to make a final determination as to an appropriate sentence.

Howard must decide between a death or life prison sentence; he must first determine if Couey suffers from a mental illness which, by state law, would prevent him from being executed. Two psychologists have evaluated Couey to determine his mental state, and depositions of them are being arranged.

A central claim of Couey’s defense attorneys at trial was that he suffered from mental illness and was mildly retarded. Jurors heard testimony from lone defense witness Dr. Robert Berland, a Tampa psychologist, who said Couey also suffered from psychological disturbance caused by brain injury.

Jurors were not convinced and returned the guilty verdict four hours after starting deliberations. During the penalty phase, the jury had to consider similar evidence when deciding if mitigating factors — reasons Couey shouldn’t be executed — outweighed reasons why execution was justified.

The jury took a little more than an hour to decide Couey should be sentenced to death.

At July’s hearings, if Howard determines Couey is not suffering from mental illness, a so-called Spencer hearing would be conducted. That hearing allows Howard to hear similar evidence and arguments presented to jurors before he makes a ruling.

A sentencing is expected to take place shortly after the Spencer hearing, though not the same day. If Howard agrees a death sentence is appropriate, the Florida Supreme Court would review an automatic appeal of the case that state law mandates.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Similar cases, diverging ends

In Pinellas cases against a man of influence and a man of none, one is offered probation.

Published June 18, 2007

Ivy Cobb admits she knows little about courts. But Cobb says she knows enough about fairness to realize her son's getting a bad deal.

In one Pinellas courtroom, prosecutors say Josh Cobb should get 20 years in prison for firing a gun in a fight.

In another courtroom, a man accused in a similar case got a plea deal and probation.

The man who got the deal is 59-year-old Robert G. Walker Jr. of Belleair, a lawyer and former prosecutor, Clearwater's former city attorney, a friend of judges.

Josh Cobb, 20, of Clearwater is poor and unemployed and doesn't know anyone important.

"Should my son be treated differently because he doesn't have money?" Ivy Cobb said.

Prosecutors say the two cases can't be compared. Apples and oranges.

Still, a mother asks: Is this justice?

- - -

It began on a Clearwater street in May 2005 when Josh Cobb and two Tampa men, Roderick Smith Jr. and Willie Wesley, argued.

Cobb was accused of firing a shot into the air and pointing a handgun at Smith. He tried to fire, but the gun jammed, the men told police.

As Wesley and Smith fled, Wesley heard a bystander tell Cobb: "Give me the gun, I'll shoot him." Smith heard something similar.

As Smith and Wesley drove away, a shot hit their car. Nobody was injured. Neither man saw who fired it.

Later, police said, Cobb called Smith to say that next time, he wouldn't miss.

Using a gun to commit a crime in Florida carries devastating consequences.

A conviction for firing a gun during a felony, for example, can bring a mandatory 20-year prison term. And just pointing a gun at someone in a threatening way is felony aggravated assault, which carries a mandatory 10 years.

Prosecutors charged Cobb with aggravated assault. And they offered a plea deal: three years in prison.

Cobb, denying he fired any shot, refused.

As the case progressed, Wesley wouldn't cooperate, failing to attend depositions or show up in court. Prosecutors had to threaten him with jail before he came in, Cobb's lawyer said.

Smith didn't care one way or the other if Cobb was prosecuted.

Prosecutors didn't initially seek 20 years in prison, a sign to Cobb's lawyer, John Trevena, that they doubted Cobb fired the gun. Talks to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor soon failed, and by May 2006, prosecutors sought all 20 years.

Circuit Judge Richard Luce told Trevena, "I guess the elected state attorney regards discharges (of a gun) as dead serious."

- - -

On Feb. 4, as Cobb's case was pending, Walker walked to his neighbor's house on a tony Belleair street. He was upset by a loud Super Bowl party, police said.

As Patrick O'Reilly and his son-in-law, Scott McNay, walked out, both said Walker pointed a handgun at McNay's chest, saying, "I am tired of this ... "

McNay put his hands up. But fearing Walker would kill him, authorities said, he then grabbed the gun. As they struggled, Walker fired once, police said. Nobody was injured.

Within seconds, McNay told a 911 operator, "He tried to kill us. ... Thank God I grabbed it. He was going to shoot me in the gut."

Walker told police he fired a bullet into the dirt to scare the men. "It did not work," he told police, who thought he was intoxicated.

Walker was arrested for attempted murder and a misdemeanor charge of using a gun under the influence.

He hired lawyer Denis de Vlaming. But within days, he changed his mind and retained lawyer Doug Prior.

Besides being Walker's neighbor, Prior also offered another benefit: He was a close friend of one of the two men. Walker thought Prior could help him settle things, de Vlaming said.

Prior conducted an investigation he said was more thorough than the one finished by police.

Prior found that the two men no longer believed Walker pointed the gun at anyone. And Walker no longer thought he deliberately fired a shot into the ground. In retrospect, Walker now thought it an accidental discharge, and the two men agreed.
"Your mind becomes clearer upon reflection," Prior said.

Five days after the shooting, the two men filed a request that Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe not prosecute Walker. Days later, Walker apologized to both men in a letter.

Saying he exhibited "poor judgment," Walker wrote, "Someone might have been seriously hurt."

When McNay showed up on Feb. 21 to talk to prosecutors, he explained that he was getting so many calls from the community about Walker, including calls from Walker's wife, that he had shut off his phone.

A prosecutor wrote in an internal report, "It was clear ... that (McNay) has come under a great deal of pressure from various people to change his story or to not cooperate with prosecution."

McNay and O'Reilly declined to discuss their change of heart with a reporter.
"He seems like a pretty outstanding guy," O'Reilly said of Walker.
McNay said, "I just want this thing to go away."

- - -

Victims file requests not to prosecute all the time. In fact, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender, the office representing indigent defendants, has a standard form at its front desk for the purpose.

Public Defender Bob Dillinger said prosecutors, who must take a victim's wishes into consideration, nonetheless often pursue cases despite such requests, especially if the state has evidence beyond the victim's own testimony.

In Walker's case, police had Walker's own words to police and the 911 call the night of the shooting.

Sometimes, as with Cobb's case, a reluctant victim is forced to testify with a subpoena, said Dillinger, who declined to comment about Walker.

"It's the state of Florida vs. the defendant," Dillinger said, "not the victims vs. the defendant."

Though arrested for attempted murder, Walker was instead charged by prosecutors with two misdemeanors: the improper exhibition of a firearm and using a gun under the influence.

And in a May 1 plea deal, Walker pleaded no contest to the charges and received one year of probation.

McCabe, the state attorney, said he considered aggravated assault -- the charge that could have carried 20 years in prison -- but the victims' lack of cooperation prevented it.

In an unrelated 2005 trial, one of McCabe's prosecutors explained the difference between improper exhibition and aggravated assault.

"There's no pointing (the gun) at a person" with the lesser charge, a prosecutor told a jury in a case of a man convicted of aggravated assault for pointing a gun at someone, though not firing it. He got a prison sentence. "There's no inferred threat."

The difference, she said, is fear.

Still, McCabe said no special break was given to Walker, who would not comment.

"We drop cases all the time when people don't want to prosecute," McCabe said. "Absent the gun going off, he might not have been prosecuted at all."

Prior said his client received no favoritism and denied Walker committed a felony. But he said Walker's stellar life should not have been discarded when prosecutors decided what charges to file.

"You just don't dismiss that," Prior said.

- - -

Ivy Cobb, 47, a clerk for Pinellas County, wants publicity for her son's case. She wants everyone to know how the courts work.

Her son's attorney, Trevena, declined comment about Walker, saying he considers him a friend.

A trial for Josh Cobb, who has no adult criminal record, is set for October.

Insiders, Ivy Cobb said, get the benefit of the doubt, while poor, young, black defendants don't.

One man says he didn't point a gun at someone, and prosecutors believe him, she said. Another says the same, and he fights for his life.

Ivy Cobb said, "It doesn't seem like America."