Friday, September 21, 2007

Supreme Court hears appeals from state, only woman on death row

Associated Press Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- An appellate lawyer for the only woman on Florida's death row Friday urged the state Supreme Court to not only uphold a judge's order for a new sentencing hearing but reverse her conviction for masterminding her husband's shotgun slaying.

The high court will rule later on both issues, but the justices sharply questioned the state's appeal of the resentencing order. It's based on the trial judge's findings that Virginia Larzelere's defense lawyers botched the penalty phase of her case.

"In the years that I've been up here I did not remember a situation in which we have had as many problems with the lawyers," said Justice Charles Wells, a 13-year high court veteran.

A Volusia County jury convicted Larzelere, 54, of masterminding the 1991 shotgun slaying of her fourth husband, Dr. Norman Larzelere, 39, at his Edgewater dental office. Prosecutors said her motive was to collect $2 million in life insurance and $1 million in assets.

Her son from a previous marriage, Jason Larzelere, then 18, was charged with being the masked gunman who killed his adoptive father, but a separate jury later acquitted him.

The Supreme Court turned down an initial appeal in 1996, but Circuit Judge John Watson two years ago ordered a new sentencing hearing. Watson initially sentenced Virginia Larzelere to death in 1993 after the jury narrowly recommended that penalty on a 7-5 vote.

Watson ruled Larzelere's defense lawyers, John Howes and Jack Wilkins, failed to adequately prepare for sentencing and neglected to present important evidence about her mental health and sexual abuse suffered as a child.

Larzelere's appellate lawyer, David Hendry, focused on Wilkins, saying he had abused alcohol and drugs during the trial. He also noted Wilkins later lost his law license and went to federal prison after pleading guilty to income tax evasion, money laundering, perjury and other charges.

Hendry said Wilkins had been distracted by his own problems during the trial.

"He's destroying financial records that had been subpoenaed by the government, he's running out of this office with this giant bottle of vodka in the mid-afternoon and he's snorting cocaine off a strip club toilet seat," Hendry said.

Assistant Attorney General Barbara Davis argued for the state that the defense lawyers made a sound tactical decision by not having Larzelere's daughter and sister testify about sexual abuse committed by her late father. That would have let the state introduce negative background evidence, she said.

"The minute you go into how that affected her, you get into the real Virginia Larzelere, (who) tried to kill two prior husbands, who embezzled from her employer, who exposed her own children to sexual abuse from the same man who sexually abused her," Davis said.

Hendry also argued Larzelere's conviction should be reversed because jurors had been instructed on conspiracy although she was not charged with that crime. He acknowledged, though, that issue should have been brought up during her initial appeal.

At trial, two men testified they had affairs with Larzelere and that she had asked them for help in killing her husband.

Two other witnesses, both granted immunity, said they heard her discuss the killing with her son and then asked them to get rid of the shotgun and a handgun by encasing them in concrete and dumping them in a creek.

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