Florida

Florida

Prosecutors Withdraw Death Penalty, Agree to Guilty Pleas in Two High Profile Cases With Multiple Victims

State and federal prosecutors have agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas by defendants charged with multiple killings in two unrelated high-profile murder cases. On May 4, Lake County, Indiana prosecutors dropped the death penalty against Darren Vann (pictured, left), who had killed seven women. On May 1, federal prosecutors announced they would not pursue the death penalty against Esteban Santiago (pictured right), who killed five people and wounded six others in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida in 2017. Military records reflect that Vann—a former Hawk Missile system operator who had earned a National Defense Service Medal—was prematurely discharged from the Marine Corps in 1993 for conduct described as "incongruent with Marine Corps’ expectations and standards." Vann had been capitally charged in the strangulation deaths of two women after having been released from prison in Texas in 2013 where he had served time for a rape conviction. County prosecutors agreed to withdraw the death penalty in exchange for his admission of guilt in their murders and the murders of five other women in an area of Gary, Indiana, frequented by sex workers and drug users. He was arrested in October 2014 after police found one victim's body in a motel bathtub. Vann told police he had killed six other women and later led authorities to their remains. Marvin Clinton, the longtime boyfriend of one of the victims and father of her child, called the death penalty "the easy way out" and said he preferred than Vann be sentenced to life without parole. "I want him to suffer," Clinton said. "These women will haunt him for the rest of his life.” Federal prosecutors reached a plea agreement that would avoid a protracted death-penalty trial for Santiago, a severely mentally ill Iraqi War veteran who suffers from auditory hallucinations and is being medicated for schizophrenia. Santiago opened fire in the Fort Lauderdale airport two months after having been released from a psychiatric hospitalization in Alaska. At that time, Santiago told local FBI agents in Anchorage that he was hearing voices and thought the government was controlling his mind. Local police then confiscated his handgun, but returned it to him weeks before the airport shooting. Santiago's lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Eric Cohen, said Santiago has expressed remorse for the shooting. U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom has ordered Santiago to undergo a mental health evaluation to ensure he is legally competent to plead guilty and has scheduled a competency hearing for May 23.

New Polls in Two Florida Counties that Heavily Use the Death Penalty Find Voters Prefer Life Sentences Instead

Recently released poll results from two Florida counties that have heavily used the death penalty suggest that voters actually prefer life-sentencing options instead. Polls conducted by North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling on January 22-23, 2018, indicate that three-quarters of Miami-Dade County respondents preferred some form of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty as the punishment for people convicted of murder, and two-thirds of Pinellas County respondents preferred one of the life-sentencing options. The margin was more than 3 to 1 in Miami-Dade (75% to 21%) and more than 2 to 1 in Pinellas (68% to 30%). Of Miami-Dade respondents who chose a life-sentencing option, a plurality (40%) preferred life without parole, plus restitution; 18% preferred life with the possibility of parole after 40 years; and 17% preferred life without possibility of parole. In Pinellas, 48% preferred life without parole plus restitution; 12% preferred life without parole; and 8% chose life with parole eligibility after 40 years. Sixty-eight percent of Miami-Dade respondents said they would support a decision by their local prosecutor to reduce or eliminate the use of the death penalty, compared to 25% who opposed. In Pinellas, 64% said they would support reducing or eliminating the use of the death penalty, as opposed to 32% against. Pinellas/Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe reportedly has filed notice that he will seek the death penalty in 15 pending cases and six re-sentences, with nine death-penalty trials already scheduled for 2018. Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty released the Pinellas County poll on February 27 and the Miami-Dade poll on March 1. The organization's director, Mark Elliott, said “[t]he survey results make clear that the state attorney’s office is ignoring the will of the overwhelming majority of Pinellas County constituents who prefer life sentences for those convicted of murder." Elliott also said that "[e]xpensive death penalty trials do nothing to prevent violent crime, protect law enforcement, or help victims’ families in meaningful ways, and mistakes are also all-too-common.” DPIC reported in 2013 that both Miami-Dade and Pinellas were among the 2% of counties that accounted for more than half of all death-row prisoners and executions in the United States. Both were among the Fair Punishment Project's list of 16 outlier counties that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015—more than 99.5% of all counties in the country.

Three Controversial Executions Turn Into A Commutation, An Execution, and an Execution Failure

Three states—Alabama, Florida, and Texas—prepared to carry out controversial executions on Thursday, February 22, all scheduled for 7 PM Eastern time, but by the end of the night, two had been halted. Less than an hour before his scheduled execution, and after having said a final good-bye to his anguished father, Texas death-row prisoner Thomas "Bart" Whitaker (pictured, left) learned that Governor Greg Abbott had commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Minutes later, Florida executed Eric Branch (pictured, center), despite undisputed evidence that he had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death. He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. And nearing midnight Central time, two-and-one-half hours after a divided U.S. Supreme Court had given Alabama the go-ahead to execute terminally ill Doyle Hamm (pictured, right) corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn called off the execution saying prison personnel did not have "sufficient time" to find a suitable vein in which to place the intravenous execution line before the death warrant expired. For Texas, it was the first time in more than a decade and only the third time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, that any governor had granted clemency to a condemned prisoner. The Texas commutation came after a unanimous recommendation by the parole board, support from the only living victim, Whitaker's father, and various state lawmakers. In explaining his grant of clemency—the first time Gov. Abbott had commuted any death sentence—the Governor cited the fact that Whitaker's codefendant, the triggerperson, did not get the death penalty, the victim "passionately opposed the execution," and Whitaker had waived any possibility of parole and would spend the remainder of his life in prison. The final-hour commutation was relayed to Whitaker in the holding cell next to the death chamber, as he was preparing to be executed. Florida executed Eric Branch despite the fact that a judge sentenced him death after two of his jurors had voted for life and the jury had been told not to record the findings that would make Branch eligible for the death penalty. Both of those practices have now been found unconstitutional. In Hurst v. Florida, decided in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reiterated that a capital defendant's right to a jury trial includes the right to have a jury find all facts necessary for the state to impose the death penalty, and later that year, the Florida Supreme Court declared that the Sixth Amendment and the Florida constitution require jury sentencing verdicts to be unanimous. Alabama had been warned that, because of his terminal cancer and prior history of drug use, Doyle Hamm's veins were not accessible and therefore an attempt to execute him via intravenous injection would be cruel and unusual. After the U.S. Supreme Court issued a temporary stay at 6:00pm CT, followed by a full denial of a stay with dissents from Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor around 9:00pm CT, Alabama started preparing to carry out Hamm's execution. After more than two-and-a-half hours, the state called it off. At a news conference immediately thereafter, Commissioner Dunn repeatedly asserted the state had followed its execution protocol, and said "I wouldn’t characterize what we had tonight as a problem.” Dunn was unable to describe what the state had been doing during the time that Hamm was being prepared for the lethal injection and dismissed questions about failed attempts to set the IV lines saying he was not qualified to answer medical questions. He said he could not tell reporters how long the medical personnel had attempted to establish IV access because "I am not back there with the staff." Alabama keeps its protocol secret, making it impossible to verify the state's assertions. Hamm's attorney Bernard Harcourt, who—like all witnesses—was not permitted to view the IV insertion portion of the execution, speculated that prison personnel could not find a vein and called the process "[s]imply unconscionable." On the morning of February 23, Harcourt filed an emergency motion saying that Hamm had "endured over two-and-a-half hours of attempted venous access" and seeking a hearing to "establish exactly what happened" during that time frame. The federal district court scheduled a hearing on the issue for Monday, February 26.

Is Racially Biased Testimony Wrongly Subjecting Intellectually Disabled Defendants to the Death Penalty?

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia categorically bars states from executing any person who has Intellectual Disability. (Daryl Atkins is pictured.) However, as reported in recent stories in Pacific Standard Magazine and the newspaper, The Atlanta Black Star, some states have attempted to circumvent the Atkins ruling by using social stereotypes and race as grounds to argue that defendants of color are not intellectually disabled. Prosecutors in at least eight states have presented opinions from expert witnesses that "ethnic adjustments" should be applied to IQ tests and tests of adaptive functioning that would deny an intellectual disability diagnosis to Black or Latino defendants who, if they were White, would be considered intellectually disabled and ineligible for the death penalty. "Ethnic adjustments" typically take one of two forms. One adjustment purports to compensate for perceived racial bias in IQ testing by boosting the defendant's IQ scores. A second form of adjustment is determining, based upon the expert witness's subjective views about a defendant's social conditions and culture, that impairments in day-to-day functioning that would be considered adaptive deficits for White defendants are not as rare for a person with the defendant's racial, ethnic, and socio-economic background, and so are not evidence of intellectual disability. Robert M. Sanger, a trial lawyer and professor of law and forensic science at Santa Barbara College of Law in California who wrote the 2015 law review article IQ, Intelligence Tests, 'Ethnic Adjustments' and Atkins called the use of these adjustments "outrageous." “What these so-called experts do," Sanger says, "is say that, because people of color are not as likely to score as well on IQ tests, you should, therefore, increase their IQ scores from 5 to 15 points to make up for some unknown or undescribed problem in the test.” Sanger has documented the use of ethnic adjustments by prosecutors in Florida, Texas, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. “The idea of racially classifying a person and then using 'ethnic adjustments' to increase his or her IQ score, thereby qualifying that person for execution, is logically, clinically, and constitutionally unsound,” Sanger wrote. IQ scores, he says, are affected by a variety of  environmental factors "such as childhood abuse, poverty, stress, and trauma[, that] can cause decreases in actual IQ scores." Because people who experience these environmental factors "disproportionately populate death row, ethnic adjustments make it more likely that individuals who are actually intellectually disabled will be put to death." Moreover, the courts have repeatedly rejected the adjusting of test scores on the basis of race in cases that would benefit racial minorities, Sanger said, most prominently in cases in which African-American applicants for police or firefighting jobs had alleged that cities were using racially discriminatory tests. Sanger says "it’s sort of outrageous that you can adjust scores upward so you can be killed, but not so you can get a job.” In 2011, the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists reprimanded psychologist Dr. George Denkowski for his misuse of ethnic adjustments in death-penalty cases. As part of an agreement dismissing disciplinary charges against him, Denkowski—who testified against sixteen Texas death-row prisoners, several of whom have been executed—was fined $5,500 and agreed that he would never again conduct intellectual disability evaluations in criminal cases. On January 4, 2018, Philadelphia prosecutors, who had used Denkowski's ethnic adjustments as part their argument that Pennsylvania death-row prisoner Jose DeJesus was not intellectually disabled, agreed that DeJesus should be resentenced to life. Ethnic adjustments are only some of the non-scientific barriers states have erected to avoid compliance with Atkins. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hall v. Florida that Florida had unconstitutionally emplyed an IQ cut-off score to reject claims of intellectual disability. In 2017, in Moore v. Texas, the court rejected the state's use of a set of unscientific lay stereotypes to claim that a defendant did not have the adaptive deficits necessary to be considered intellectually disabled. The Court called Texas's approach an "outlier" that, "[b]y design and in operation, ... create[s] an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed." Moore reiterated that a court’s determination of intellectual disability in a death-penalty case must be “informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework."

Florida Denies New Sentencing Hearings to More than Thirty Prisoners, Most Unconstitutionally Sentenced to Death

In three days of bulk decision-making, the Florida Supreme Court has denied new sentencing hearings to more than thirty death-row prisoners, declining to enforce its bar against non-unanimous death sentences to cases that became final on appeal before June 2002. At least 24 of the prisoners who were denied relief had been unconstitutionally sentenced to death after non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations, including three prisoners—Etheria Verdell JacksonErnest D. Suggs, and Harry Franklin Phillips—with bare majority death recommendations of 7-5. The Florida court adopted June 24, 2002 as its cutoff date for enforcing its decision because that was when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Ring v. Arizona, an Arizona case establishing that the right to a jury trial entitles a capital defendant to have a jury find all facts that are necessary for a death sentence to be imposed. In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. Florida that Florida's death-penalty statute, which reserved penalty-phase factfinding for the judge, violated Ring. Later, also in Hurst's case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a capital defendant's right to a jury trial also required a unanimous jury vote for death before the trial judge could impose a death sentence. That decision potentially invalidated more than 375 Florida death sentences. However, in December 2016, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ring had announced a new legal right and that it would not apply Hurst to cases that had already completed their direct appeal before Ring was decided. The court issued opinions declining to apply Hurst in ten death-penalty cases on January 22, another ten on January 23, and a third set of ten on January 24. The court also issued unpublished orders denying relief in some other cases. Still more decisions are expected. These rulings reiterate the court's decision to not grant relief to prisoners who were unconstitutionally sentenced to death prior to Ring. On August 10, 2017, the court, by a 6-1 vote, upheld the death sentence imposed on James Hitchcock, despite his being unconstitutionally sentenced to death following a non-unanimious sentencing recommendation by the jury. In dissenting, Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote: "To deny Hitchcock relief when other similarly situated defendants have been granted relief amounts to a denial of due process." In 80% of the new opinions, juries had not unanimously recommended death, but the prisoners' appeals had been completed before Ring was decided. In four cases, the appeals of unconstitutionally death-sentenced prisoners became final in 2001. Steven Maurice Evans's appeal became final in March of 2002 and James Ford's unconstitutional death sentence became final in May 28, 2002, less than a month before Ring was decided. In the six cases in which prisoners had unanimous jury recommendations for death, the court declined to review other potential violations of Hurst and whether instructions diminishing the jury’s sense of responsibility may have unconstitutionally affected the verdict. Among those whose appeals were denied on January 22, 2018 is Eric Scott Branch, who was unconstitutionally sentenced to death following a 10-2 jury recommendation for death in 1997. Branch is set to be executed on February 22. According to a Death Penalty Information Center analysis of Florida's death-row prisoners who have non-unanimous jury recommendations and whose convictions became final post-Ring, 153 prisoners on Florida's death row are entitled to resentencing. Of them,123 (or 80.9%) have already obtained relief. At least eighteen prisoners who obtained relief under Hurst have since been resentenced to life, while two prisoners who initially had non-unanimous sentencing recommendations have been resentenced to death. In 2017, Florida executed two prisoners—Marc Asay and Michael Lambrix—after denying them relief despite their unconstitutional non-unanimous death sentences. [UPDATE:  The Florida Supreme Court issued opinions denying relief in ten additional death-penalty cases on January 26, bringing the total of cases in which it declined to apply the constitutional protections announced in Hurst v. Florida and Hurst v. State during the past week to at least 41.]  

State Attorney Aramis Ayala's First Capital Prosecution Ends in Deal for Life in Prison

There will be no death penalty in the first capital prosecution authorized under the administration of Orange and Osceola County, Florida, State Attorney Aramis Ayala. In a case that rekindled the political confrontation between State Attorney Ayala and Governor Rick Scott over the use of the death penalty, Emerita Mapp (pictured) pleaded no contest on December 8 to one count of murder and a second count of attempted murder in exchange for a sentence of life without parole. The plea deal came just three days before the trial judge was scheduled to rule on Mapp’s motion arguing that the court should bar the death penalty in her case because the state attorney’s office had missed the filing deadline for seeking the death penalty. In March, State Attorney Ayala announced that her office would not seek the death penalty, saying that the use of the punishment was “not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." Scott responded by removing Ayala’s office from more than two dozen potential death-penalty cases over the course of several months, and replacing her with Lake County State Attorney Brad King. The move, which was opposed by civil rights groups and the Florida black legislative caucus, had unspoken racial undertones: Ayala, a Democrat, is Florida's only black elected state attorney; King, a Republican, is white and a vocal proponent of capital punishment. Ayala sued Scott, alleging that he had overstepped his powers, but in August 2017, the Florida Supreme Court upheld his actions, holding that Scott had acted “well within the bounds of the Governor’s broad authority.” Ayala said she respected the ruling and announced the formation of a panel to decide in which cases to pursue capital punishment. Mapp’s case was the first in which the panel had authorized the death penalty, but that authorization came 22 days after the deadline for providing notice of capital prosecution. That prompted another round of criticisms traded between Scott and Ayala as to who was to blame for missing the deadline.

Former Florida Death-Row Doctor: Experience of Veterans Highlights Death Penalty's Failures

A former Florida death-row doctor says the experience of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death provides a lens through which the public can better understand some of the failures of the state's death penalty and identify opportunities for meaningful reform of the criminal justice system. In a Veterans Day guest column in Florida Politics, psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Thornton (pictured) writes that "18-percent of Florida’s death row is made up of veterans of our military services." Their backgrounds of "childhood trauma, drug use and more," he says, is typical of the experiences of "almost all" of the prisoners on the state's death row. In conjunction with Veterans Day 2015, DPIC released a report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, that estimated at least 300 veterans were on state and federal death rows across the country, representing approximately ten percent of the nation’s death row population. The report highlighted the plight of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the lack of effective mental health intervention and support services, and the failures of defense counsel to investigate and present critical evidence to spare the veterans' lives. Dr. Thornton—whose more than 30-years of clinical experience includes three years overseeing medical and psychiatric care on Florida's death row—noted that two men whom Florida executed in 2017 were military veterans. Michael Lambrix, who was executed on October 5, was honorably discharged from the Army after becoming disabled in a training accident and subsequently developed a serious problem with drugs. Patrick Hannon, executed November 8, already suffered from drug abuse while in the military. "Neither," Dr. Thornton writes, "had the benefit of current intervention tactics deployed by the Veteran’s Administration to care for veterans with a history of trauma and drug abuse." Dr. Thornton advocates that Florida reallocate the money it spends on the death penalty for "more mental health treatment services, especially for military veterans, who deserve better treatment after sacrificing so much for our country." The state, he writes, should "place a moratorium on executions, and not just those of veterans, but everyone on Florida’s death row." Four veterans were executed in the United States in 2016: Georgia executed Brandon Jones and William Sallie, who had served in the Army, and Travis Hittson, who had served in the Navy; Alabama executed former Army reservist. Ronald Smith. Two men who served in the military have been exonerated in 2017: Air Force veteran Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. was exonerated in Florida in May and Rickey Dale Newman, a mentally ill former Marine suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder who was homeless at the time he was charged with capital murder in Arkansas.

Supreme Court Directs Florida to Reconsider Intellectual Disability Decision in Death Penalty Case

The United States Supreme Court has ordered the Florida Supreme Court to reconsider a decision that had denied a death-row prisoner's claim that he was ineligible for the death penalty because he has Intellectual Disability. On October 16, the Court reversed and remanded the case of Tavares Wright (pictured, left), directing the Florida courts to reconsider his intellectual-disability claim in light of the constitutional standard the Court set forth in its March 2017 decision in Moore v. Texas. The decision in Wright v. Florida was the sixth time the Court has vacated a state or federal court's rejection of an intellectual-disability claim and remanded the case for reconsideration under Moore—and the third time it has done so in less than a month. Earlier in October, the Court vacated two decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and remanded the cases of Texas death-row prisoners Obie Weathers and Steven Long for reconsideration in light of Moore, and on October 18, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals cited Moore  as grounds for reconsidering its own prior rejection of intellectual-disability claims raised by Carnell Petetan, Jr. (pictured, right). Moore was expected to have broad impact in Texas, where—the Court unanimously agreed—the state courts had unconstitutionally adopted an unscientific set of lay stereotypes to determine whether a defendant facing the death penalty had impairments in functioning that qualified him or her as intellectually disabled. Five members of the Court also stressed in the majority opinion in Moore that the state had improperly rejected claims of intellectual disability by emphasizing a capital defendant's perceived adaptive strengths, instead of "focus[ing] the adaptive-functioning inquiry on adaptive deficits," as required by accepted medical practice. Lawyers in Harris County (Houston)—which has executed more prisoners than any other county—anticipate that more than a dozen prisoners sentenced to death in that county may be entitled to reconsideration of their death sentences under Moore, and one prisoner, Robert James Campbell, has already been resentenced to life. However, the Supreme Court's recent rulings indicate that its pronouncement in Moore that a state's determination of Intellectual Disability must be "informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework" is not limited to Texas. In May, the Court vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in the case of Taurus Carroll after his lawyer invoked Moore to argue that Alabama had unconstitutionally deviated from accepted methods of determining intellectual disability. In the Florida case, Wright's lawyers argued that the state supreme court's decision in his case was inconsistent with a line of Supreme Court cases on intellectual disability—Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which declared execution of those with intellectual disability to be unconstitutional; Hall v. Florida (2014), which struck down Florida's approach to measuring the role of IQ in determining intellectual disability; and Moore. Although its order did not set forth the reasons for its decision, the Supreme Court agreed and directed the Florida courts to reconsider the issue.

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