Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Case highlights Fla. death penalty law

ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 16 (UPI) -- If the murder trial of Casey Anthony ends in a conviction it will bring Florida's "hybrid" death penalty into the case, legal experts say.

Anthony is accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter Caylee Marie, whose remains were found near the family home in 2008, the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported Sunday.

If convicted, the jury will recommend a sentence -- either the death penalty or life in prison -- but Florida is one of only three states, along with Alabama and Delaware, that allow judges to decide against a jury, the newspaper said.

In 30 states, a jury must vote unanimously to sentence someone to death. A vote of 11-1 for death in those states means a mandatory life sentence, whether the judge agrees or not.

In Florida, however, an 11-1 vote for death would be a strong show of support for a death sentence and judges would normally be inclined to rule that way, experts say.

But under the state's "hybrid" system they are not required to, and are free to ignore the jury's penalty decision.

The system has been "an area of controversy," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

"I don't think the average person realizes Florida is that different," Dieter said. "In all of those [other] states, the judge can't state, 'I'm going to impose death anyhow [despite the jury's sentence].'"

Man, 22, will serve life in prison for robbery conviction

Michael D. Reed Jr. was given the max sentence because of his history of committing crime.

Published: Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 11:12 p.m.

An armed robbery has earned a Gainesville man a sentence of life in prison because of his history of committing crime, a prosecutor said.

Click to enlarge
Michael D. Reed Jr.

Michael D. Reed Jr., 22, got the sentence after a jury convicted him of armed robbery and other charges for his role in an attack in May 2009.

Reed and two other men used weapons to demand cash from a man outside a home and then fled, leading police on a chase at speeds of 85 to 90 mph from Gainesville to Alachua.

Alachua police deployed stop sticks to puncture all four of the vehicle's tires. The gold Saturn stopped in the 9600 block of U.S. 441, and police apprehended all three suspects.

Reed's co-defendants - Rama T. Thomas Jr., 22, and Blair Brandon Boyd, 22 - accepted plea deals, and Assistant State Attorney Omar Hechavarria said Reed was offered one that would have gotten him a sentence of 20 years.

However, Reed chose a trial and was convicted of robbery with a firearm while masked, fleeing and attempting to elude a law enforcement officer, driving while license suspended, resisting arrest without violence, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and giving a false name to a law enforcement officer.

All three defendants had been released from prison within five months of the robbery. Hechavarria said Reed drew the life sentence because of a law dealing with criminals who commit new offenses after they've been released from prison.

"It means that if you are convicted of an enumerated crime, which robbery with a firearm is, that you will get the maximum sentence," Hechavarria said. "Robbery with a firearm is a life sentence, so the judge had no option but to give him a life sentence."

Hechavarria added that Reed will not be eligible for parole.

South Florida detectives and prosecutors discuss best ways to fight sex crimes

By Linda Trischitta

Sun Sentinel

Updated: 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

Posted: 9:28 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010

BOCA RATON The bad news: The sex crimes unit is one of Broward State Attorney Michael Satz's fastest-growing departments.

The good news: Detectives and prosecutors are getting together to discuss how to build successful cases.

Forty-five South Florida investigators, victims advocates and prosecutors began a three-day conference Tuesday in Boca Raton, hosted by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

The meeting has speakers from the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other law enforcement agencies who will discuss sex crimes, human trafficking, Internet investigations and abducted children.

Stacey Honowitz, supervisor of the Broward State Attorney's Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit, shared tales from past cases of how difficulties with witnesses and prominent suspects and other stumbling blocks were resolved.

She also revealed some felons' methods, including one who impersonated a doctor to molest a child in a hospital bed, and another who chose autistic children as his targets because they cannot easily communicate abuse.

She called pedophiles "master manipulators" of mothers and their children, and of employers who are not inclined to make criminal background checks.

"The single mom is the perfect target because she's desperate to have a male role model in their lives," Honowitz said.

The abuse is frequently structured as a game between adult and child, she said.

"They do it to make it appear that what's going on is natural and beautiful and fun, and say to the child, 'If you tell your mommy, I won't be able to take you to the arcade,' " she said.

An author of two books on abuse for parents and children, with a third to be released this fall, Honowitz said education will help as a preventative, but it's not foolproof.

"No matter how often you tell a 4-year-old that someone shouldn't touch your privates, but [a pedophile] is taking them to Toys "R" Us or giving them cookies, they won't tell," she said.

She said the stigma of being a pedophile's victim is diminishing. She is seeing adult victims testify in cases decades later, despite the trauma of reliving the crime.

"That's why celebrities are coming forward, because they were molested by somebody and never got help," Honowitz said. "That's why our unit is growing, because people are realizing just how important this is."

Man who shot Chilean students found competent to stand trial

2010-08-03 14:03:12

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Dannie Baker, who is charged with killing two Chilean students and wounding three others more than a year ago, has been deemed competent to stand trial.

Public defender Lenny Platteborze told Walton County Circuit Judge Kelvin Wells on Tuesday that psychologists have said that Baker, 61, can go to trial.

“Dr. (James) Larsen has reviewed Florida State Hospital’s report and agrees he was extremely delusional at the time of the shooting, including believing he was the president of the United States and he was speaking directly to God,” Platteborze told Wells. “The state hospital ruled that his competency is very fragile and Dr. Larsen agrees with that as well.

“At this point, however, he is competent to proceed.”

Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore, who is prosecuting the case, asked Wells to review Larsen’s findings and rule on whether to go to trial.

Wells said he will review Larsen’s report and scheduled a pre-trial hearing for Oct. 21. In the meantime, Baker’s attorneys will collect evidence, Elmore said.

Wells ruled Baker incompetent in November 2009. Baker then was sent to Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee for testing and treatment.

Doctors at the hospital determined Baker was competent in May. He was taken to the Walton County Jail for additional testing to determine whether he could be tried for allegedly fatally shooting 22-year-old Racine Argandona and 23-year-old Nicholas Corp-Torres, and wounding three other students.

The students were visiting a friend at Summer Lake town home complex on Scenic Gulf Drive in Destin early on Feb. 26, 2009, when lawmen say Baker fired a rifle through one of the unit’s windows about 1:45 a.m.

Wounded were Sebastian Arizaga-Suarez, David Bilboa-Meza and Francisco Cofre-Fernandez.

Baker barricaded himself inside his town home in the same complex until he surrendered shortly after 6 a.m., according to Walton County deputies.

He is charged with two counts of premeditated first-degree murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, three counts of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm and shooting into an occupied building.

The three students who were wounded returned to Chile. Elmore said it is likely they will be called back to testify at Baker’s trial. He said the state will seek the death penalty.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Defense argues sloppy FBI work tainted 1993 race crime trial

By Colleen Jenkins, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Saturday, July 31, 2010

Mark Kohut, left, and Charles Rourk are trying to get their convictions overturned in the 1993 attempted murder of a black tourist.
Mark Kohut, left, and Charles Rourk are trying to get their convictions overturned in the 1993 attempted murder of a black tourist.

TAMPA — On May 4, 1995, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the offense of attempted first-degree felony murder.

Six days later, a lower appeals court upheld the attempted murder convictions of two Lakeland men who committed Hillsborough County's most notorious hate crime.

In court Friday, defense attorneys argued that Mark Kohut and Charles Rourk received life prison sentences for a crime that for a small window in the state's history did not exist.

The men, who maintain their innocence, want their convictions overturned and a new trial.

"The sentence is illegal if the crime was nonexistent," said Assistant Public Defender Robert Mactavish, who represents Rourk.

Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco took the issue under advisement Friday after a two-day hearing.

Though she did not rule, the judge seemed to put stock in case law that favors the defendants.

If Kohut, 44, and Rourk, 50, win relief, it would be the latest twist in a bizarre case that drew national attention.

On New Year's Day 1993, the white men kidnapped a black tourist from a Valrico shopping center, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.

They laughed and yelled racial slurs as Christopher Wilson suffered burns on nearly 40 percent of his body.

The trial was sent to West Palm Beach because attorneys couldn't pick an impartial jury in Tampa. The lead prosecutor quit after a public dispute with his boss, Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe, who took over the case and was criticized for his eccentric courtroom behavior.

Prosecutors presented jurors with dual theories of attempted premeditated murder and attempted felony murder, which means the act was committed during the commission of another crime.

Jurors received instructions on both theories.

The verdict form, however, did not indicate which type of attempted murder jurors believed the men committed.

On Friday, Assistant State Attorney Douglas Crow said there was overwhelming evidence of premeditation. He suggested that jurors may have thought Kohut and Rourk were guilty under both theories.

"But the point is, you don't know," Sisco said.

Crow questioned the timeliness of the men's quest.

"It's a nightmare to try and go back and re-create this case after 17 years," he said.

Sisco and defense attorneys cited case law that said a conviction for a nonexistent crime amounts to a fundamental error that can be raised at any time.

The Legislature reinstated attempted felony murder effective Oct. 1, 1996. But the state Supreme Court decision that abolished the offense temporarily applied to all cases that were pending on appeal at that time, including Kohut and Rourk's.

"It's tragic that it wasn't caught then and there," the judge said. "But it wasn't. So here we are."

Defense attorneys also argued Friday that shoddy work by an FBI agent who conducted the hair and fiber analyses in Kohut and Rourk's case discredited the state's entire investigation.

They said the judge should set aside the men's kidnapping and robbery convictions, along with the attempted murder charge.

An independent scientific review completed in 2001 found that the FBI agent's notes were written in pencil, not pen, lacked dates and contained abbreviations that were hard to understand.

The report concluded that the agent's testimony at trial was inconsistent with his lab notes.

"I think (the new evidence) would have further weakened this case and would have resulted in an acquittal," said Kohut's attorney, Daniel Hernandez.

Prosecutor Kristen Mendoza said the conclusions drawn by the defense were "based on large leaps of logic and reading more into this report than actually exists."

Mendoza said the issues raised in the review did not question the agent's findings and would not have affected the outcome of the trial.

The agent's lab tests revealed no physical evidence to link either Kohut or Rourk to the crime scene — a point the defense touted during the trial.

Sisco noted the irony of the current defense strategy Friday.

"You would be impeaching one of your star witnesses," she said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at or (813) 226-3337.