Florida

Florida

Florida Executes Mentally Ill Vietnam Veteran Diagnosed with “Traumatic Brain Disease”

Florida has executed Bobby Joe Long (pictured), a mentally ill Vietnam veteran with service-related traumatic brain injuries, after the U.S. Supreme Court on May 23, 2019 declined to review his case. Long had asked the Court to halt his execution to address “[w]hether an individual who suffers from severe mental illness is exempt from execution under the Eighth Amendment. In 1980, Long received a diagnosis of “Traumatic Brain Disease” from the Veterans Administration as a result of injuries sustained during his military service. He also had a history of several traumatic head injuries during his childhood. Following his diagnosis, he was discharged and given a “service-connected disability rating,” but received little or no treatment from the military or the VA for his brain damage. Four years later, he killed eight women in an eight-month span, including the murder for which he was sentenced to death. At Long’s trial, medical experts testified that his injuries had damaged the areas of the brain responsible for judgment and behavior control.

Long’s petition for review—one of three he filed in the Court during the pendency of his death warrant—urged the Court to prohibit the execution of people with severe mental illness, saying, “[t]he same lessened moral culpability cited by Atkins [which prohibited the execution of people with intellectual disability] and Roper [which prohibited the execution of juvenile offenders] in finding the intellectually disabled and juveniles ineligible for execution applies with equal force to individuals with severe mental illness.” His lawyers argued that “[s]evere mental illness, like intellectual disability, is a persistent and frequently debilitating medical condition that impairs an individual’s ability to make rational decisions, control impulses, evaluate information, and function properly in society. Because severely mentally ill defendants have a lessened moral culpability, because their impairments ‘jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings,’... and because their diminished capacity negates the retributive and deterrent goals of capital punishment, they should be held categorically ineligible to receive the death penalty.”

Florida’s Catholic bishops had called on Governor Ron DeSantis to grant clemency for Long, citing both Long’s mental illness and the Church’s teachings against capital punishment. In a letter to the governor, the Florida Catholic Conference wrote that, “[a]lthough [Long] caused much harm, society has been safe from his aggressive acts in the decades of his incarceration. Without taking his life, society can be protected while he endures the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole.” The letter called attention to “the multiple traumas [Long] experienced throughout his life,” including a motorcycle accident he suffered in 1974. “That incident profoundly affected him and his behaviors,” the Florida conference said, and “contributed to his receiving a disability rating from the military, from which he was honorably discharged.”

Long was the eighth person executed in the United States in 2019 and the first in Florida. He is the 1498th person put to death in the U.S. since executions resumed in 1977.

Florida Man Exonerated 42 Years After Wrongful Conviction and Death Sentence

Forty-two years after he and his nephew were wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida and he was sentenced to death, Clifford Williams, Jr. (pictured) has been exonerated. Submitting a report from its Conviction Integrity Unit that found “no credible evidence of guilt and … credible evidence of innocence,” Duval County prosecutors asked a Jacksonville trial court to dismiss all charges against Williams, now 76 years old, and his nephew, Nathan Myers, now 61. Williams is the 165th former death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973.

Williams and Myers were tried and convicted in 1976 for the murder of Jeanette Williams and the wounding of her girlfriend, Nina Marshall. Marshall told police that two men had entered their bedroom at night and fired shots from the foot of the bed. She identified Williams and Myers as the shooters. However, the physical evidence — never presented by defense counsel — revealed that the bullets had been fired from outside, through the bedroom window, and had come from a single gun. Defense counsel also ignored forty alibi witnesses whom Williams and Myers had indicated would be able to testify that they had been next door at a birthday party at the time the shooting occurred. The defense presented no witnesses. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. In the second trial, which lasted two days, prosecutors argued, without presenting any supporting evidence, that the men committed the murder because Jeannette Williams supposedly owed them a $50 drug debt. The jury convicted Williams and Myers but recommended that they be sentenced to life. Judge Cliff Shepard — a notoriously harsh trial judge — overrode the jury’s sentencing recommendation for Williams and sentenced him to death. Shepard accepted the life recommendation for 18-year-old Myers.

Prosecutors began reinvestigating the case after newly elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson created the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the state in 2018. The unit issued its report, authored by Conviction Integrity Review Director Shelley Thibodeau, in February. The report noted that no physical evidence linked Williams or Myers to the shooting and that “the physical and scientific evidence actually contradicts [Marshall’s] testimony about what happened.” The report also found that another man, Nathaniel Lawson, had confessed to several people that he had committed the killings and that a 1976 police report noted his presence near the crime scene around the time of the murder. Thibodeau concluded that "[t]he culmination of all the evidence, most of which the jury never heard or saw, leaves no abiding confidence in the convictions or the guilt of the defendants.”  

Williams had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get anyone interested in the case, and responded emotionally after the hearing. “My mother died while I was on death row,” he told Florida Times-Union reporter Andrew Pantazi. Through tears, he said, “I just wanted to get out and see my kids. There wasn’t nobody but them.”

Twenty-nine wrongfully convicted death-row prisoners have been exonerated in Florida, the most in the nation. In 21 of the 23 Florida exonerations for which the jury’s sentencing vote is known, judges imposed the death penalty by overriding a jury recommendation for life or following a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. Florida now requires a unanimous jury recommendation before a judge can impose a death sentence.

Florida Man Who Took Plea to Avoid Death Penalty Posthumously Exonerated of 1983 Rape-Murder

Broward County, Florida prosecutors moved to posthumously exonerate Ronald Stewart (pictured) of a rape and murder he did not commit. Stewart pled no contest to the 1983 rape and murder of Regina Harrison after he was threatened with the death penalty. The actual killer, whose guilt has since been confirmed by DNA testing, went on to murder at least two more women after Harrison.

On March 21, 2019, prosecutors released a statement announcing that they were seeking to overturn Stewart’s conviction in Harrison’s rape and murder after the confession of another man, Jack Jones, led them to test DNA evidence from the case. “Although Stewart is now deceased, it is appropriate that the record be corrected at this time to reflect the results of the new information and evidence uncovered since November 2018,” Broward State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Paula McMahon said in a joint news release with the Hollywood Police Department. “It is also important to try to determine if Jones killed other victims. … We regret that [Stewart] pleaded no contest to a murder he did not commit and that this diverted attention from the real killer.”

Stewart’s no-contest plea was not an admission of guilt. At his sentencing, his lawyer told the court, "Rather than, you know, run the risk of the death penalty, he chose to enter this plea." Counsel pointed out that the evidence of guilt was weak, since fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Stewart and key testimony came from unreliable jailhouse informants. However, Stewart feared that he would be sentenced to death because he had previously been convicted of a series of rapes. He was serving concurrent 50-year sentences for Harrison’s murder and three other rapes when he died in prison in 2008.

The re-examination of the case came as a result of a letter written by Arkansas death-row prisoner Jack Jones, prior to his 2017 execution. Jones sent his sister the letter with instructions not to read it for a year after his death. In that letter, Jones confessed to Harrison’s murder, writing, "So, you just let [Harrison’s family] know that I am deeply sorry, that I couldn’t rest easy until they knew the truth. Let them know that in the end I became a better person, and I did the best I could to be as much as I could for others, out of respect for the ones I’ve harmed." His sister gave the letter to detective John Curcio, who reopened the investigation and had DNA evidence tested. In 1991, Jones killed Lori Barrett, a tourist who was visiting Fort Lauderdale. Four years later, he murdered Mary Phillips in Arkansas.

The case is one of a growing number of exonerations in which the threat of the death penalty has induced false confessions or caused innocent defendants to enter guilty or no-contest pleas to crimes they did not commit. Recent high-profile examples of this phenomenon include the Beatrice Six in Nebraska and the Norfolk Four in Virginia.

To End Years-Long Delays, Prosecutors in Three States Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in separate capital cases in Indiana, Florida, and Texas have dropped pursuit of the death penalty in order to end notoriously lengthy delays and facilitate healing for the victims’ families. On March 8, 2019, St. Joseph County, Indiana prosecutors agreed to a plea deal instead of a third death-penalty trial for Wayne Kubsch (pictured) at the request of the victims’ family. Kubsch was initially sentenced to death in 2000 and received the death penalty a second time in 2005, but both times his triple-murder convictions was overturned. In announcing the plea agreement, St. Joseph County Prosecutor Kenneth Cotter said “[t[he family actually asked us to take the death penalty off. They wanted to remember their loved ones, not remember him every time he came back with another appeal.” Kubsch pled guilty and was sentenced to life without parole, agreeing to waive his right to appeal his sentence. “I'm 75 years old. I'll soon be 76. And we decided that the best thing would be life in prison, because that way we don't have all the appeals. We don't have all this to go through and the kids don't have to deal with this constantly,” said Diane Mauk, the mother of victim Beth Kubsch. Chief Deputy Prosecutor Eric Tamashasky said, "For the family, this gives them the closure that they’ve so desperately needed for 20 years.”

Prosecutors also decided to drop the death penalty to end lengthy pre-trial delays in cases in Florida and Texas. After eight years of proceedings in what news reports described as Hillsborough County’s “longest-running murder case that has yet to see trial,” Florida state attorneys announced on February 4 that they would no longer seek the death penalty against Michael Keetly. Keetly had been in pretrial detention for nearly 3,000 days. Keetly’s attorney, Lyann Goudie, said she had recently presented mitigating evidence to the prosecutors in an effort to persuade prosecutors that they were unlikely to obtain a unanimous vote for death, and had challenged the ballistic evidence and eyewitness identification the prosecution intended to present at trial. Following the prosecution’s decision, the case is now scheduled to go to trial in June.  Todric Deon McDonald was charged with two counts of capital murder in McLennan County, Texas, more than four years ago. In 2018, with the case facing additional delays to permit the defense to prepare for a potential penalty phase, the victims’ families told prosecutors they supported withdrawing the death penalty if it meant the case would proceed to trial as scheduled. The prosecutors dropped the death penalty in August 2018 and jury selection began on February 11, 2019, after McDonald had spent 1,733 days in jail. McDonald was convicted three days later and sentenced to life without parole.

A death-penalty trial requires extensive pretrial preparation, because defense attorneys have to conduct an in-depth investigation into their client’s life history and mental health to present mitigating evidence in the event their client is convicted. The longer pretrial period is one of many reasons why death-penalty trials are significantly more expensive than trials in which a death sentence is not an option. There is also a lengthy appeals process if a defendant is sentenced to death, and at that point, the most likely outcome is that the conviction or death sentence will be reversed.

With Backing of New Governor, Florida Clemency Board Posthumously Pardons the “Groveland Four”

On January 11, 2019, the Florida Clemency Board unanimously granted posthumous pardons to the “Groveland Four,” four young African-American men falsely accused of raping a young white woman in Lake County, Florida in 1949. During the racist hysteria following the accusation, white mobs burned down black residences, a massive white posse lynched a black suspect, all-white juries condemned two innocent men to death and an innocent teen to a life sentence, and a racist sheriff murdered one of the men and attempted to kill another. Gov. Ron DeSantis, convening the board for the first time since his election, urged it to grant clemency, calling the notorious case a “miscarriage of justice.” The state legislature issued a formal apology to the family members of the men in 2017, but former Gov. Rick Scott had taken no action on a pardon.

The four black men – Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd – were accused of the 1949 rape of a 17-year-old white woman, Norma Padgett. Thomas escaped from custody but was hunted down and murdered by an angry mob. He was reportedly shot 400 times. White mobs burned and shot at the homes of black families, many of whom fled and never returned. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten until they falsely confessed to the crime. All-white juries convicted them, sentencing World War II veterans Irvin and Shepherd (pictured, right) to death and Greenlee (pictured, left), who was only 16 years old, to life in prison. The NAACP took up the men’s case, and they were represented by Thurgood Marshall, among others. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions. Shortly after the reversal, Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall shot the two handcuffed men while he was driving them to a court appearance, and posed for a photo in front of their prone bodies. McCall claimed that he had acted in self-defense. Shepherd died. Irvin, who survived by playing dead until others arrived at the scene, was retried and once again sentenced to death by an all-white jury. He received a last-minute reprieve when the prosecutor expressed doubt as to his guilt and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Greenlee and Irvin were both eventually paroled, but Irvin died just one year after his release. Greenlee died in 2012.

Carol Greenlee, Charles Greenlee’s daughter, testified in favor of the pardons. In an interview, she said, “I wanted two things to happen. I wanted the world to know the truth, and I wanted my daddy’s name cleared.” Governor DeSantis said, “I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that [the] ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted, time and time again.” In addition to the pardon and the legislature’s apology, the Groveland Four also received an apology from the Orlando Sentinel, which inflamed passions with its racist coverage of the case in 1949. In particular, the newspaper apologized for running a political cartoon as the grand jury convened, showing four empty electric chairs with the title “No Compromise!” A Sentinel editorial published the day before the pardons said, “We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.”

Disparate Death-Penalty Rulings in Same Florida Murder Case Raise Arbitrariness Concerns

The Florida Supreme Court issued rulings in thirteen death penalty cases in the last two weeks of 2018, upholding convictions and death sentences in ten, reversing one death sentence, remanding one case for a new hearing on intellectual disability, and allowing limited DNA testing in another case. The most notable of the decisions came in the cases of Gerald Murray (pictured left) and Steven Taylor (pictured, right), decided on December 20, 2018, who were sentenced to death for the same murder and raised exactly the same challenge to their unconstitutional death sentences. Murray’s death sentence was overturned, but Taylor’s was upheld, renewing criticism that the Florida Supreme Court has arbitrarily and unfairly applied its decisions declaring that death sentences that are based on non-unanimous jury sentencing recommendations are unconstitutional.

Murray and Taylor were tried separately for the same 1990 Jacksonville burglary, sexual assault, and murder. Taylor was tried once and sentenced to death by the trial judge following a 10-2 jury recommendation for death. The Florida Supreme Court decided his direct appeal in 1993. His conviction and death sentence became final in October 1994, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case. Because of a series of constitutional errors in Murray’s case, his conviction was overturned twice and the death penalty imposed against him in another trial also was overturned. The trial judge imposed a death sentence in his fourth trial following an 11-1 jury recommendation for death. The Florida Supreme Court upheld that conviction and death sentence on direct appeal in 2009, and the conviction and sentence became final when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case later that year.

In January 2016, in Hurst v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing procedures under which both Murray and Taylor were tried violated Florida capital defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to have a jury determine all the facts that could subject them to the death penalty. Later that year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Hurst v. State that the Sixth Amendment violation could never be harmless in a case in which one or more jurors had voted for life and that death sentences based on such non-unanimous jury verdicts also violated the Florida state constitution. However, the court also decided that it would limit enforcement of its constitutional ruling to cases that became final after June 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court first announced the Sixth Amendment right to jury factfinding in the penalty-phase of a capital trial. At that time, Justices Pariente and Perry dissented, calling the appeal cutoff date arbitrary. In her December 20 concurring opinion in Taylor’s case, Pariente called the Murray and Taylor rulings “the textbook example of the ‘unintended arbitrariness’” she had warned about in her prior dissent. “Taylor and Murray were both convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death after nonunanimous jury recommendations for death for the murder of Alice Vest in September 1990. Yet, only one will receive a new penalty phase. Clearly, the Court’s line-drawing for the retroactivity of Hurst creates unconstitutional results for defendants like Taylor,” she wrote.

18 Years After Enacting DNA Law, Florida Death-Row Prisoners Are Still Being Denied Testing

Florida courts have refused death-row prisoners access to DNA testing seventy times, denying 19 men – eight of whom have been executed – any testing at all and preventing nine others from obtaining testing of additional evidence or more advanced DNA testing after initial tests were inconclusive. For a six-part investigative series, Blood and truth: The lingering case of Tommy Zeigler and how Florida fights DNA testing, Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist Leonora LaPeter Anton reviewed more than 500 cases in which Florida’s defendants were sentenced to death. Her investigation disclosed that even after Florida adopted a DNA testing law in 2001, court rulings have continued to create barriers to obtaining testing that could potentially prevent wrongful executions. “Almost 20 years later,” she wrote, “some prosecutors routinely fight DNA requests, especially in high-profile death row cases, and the courts often fail to intervene.” According to Innocence Project of Florida executive director Seth Miller, “[i]n 2018, it is just as hard to get post-conviction DNA testing as it was before we had a post-conviction DNA testing law, and that’s completely upside down.” 

The investigative series focuses on the case of Tommy Zeigler (pictured), who has maintained his innocence throughout the 42 years in which he has been on Florida’s death row. On Christmas Eve in 1975, Ziegler was shot and his wife, her parents, and a man who served as Ziegler’s handyman were murdered in Ziegler’s furniture store in Winter Garden, Florida. Ziegler was charged with the murders. The Times series describes the controversial trial and questionable evidence in his case in detail. Ultimately, the jury convicted Zeigler but took less than half an hour to recommend that he be sentenced to life. The trial judge overrode their decision and sentenced Zeigler to death. 

Zeigler has sought DNA testing six times. In 2001, he was granted limited testing, which, Anton reports, “appeared to support his story that he was a victim of a robbery at his furniture store.” However, even though Ziegler’s lawyers have offered to defray the entire cost of DNA analysis, Florida’s courts have refused to grant him a more advanced type of DNA testing that is now routinely available in murder cases. Ziegler’s lawyers have already presented evidence discrediting some of the key prosecution witnesses and demonstrating the implausibility that Ziegler could have shot himself through the stomach to fake his own victimization. They argue that the DNA evidence would prove his innocence and, at a minimum, transform the rest of the prosecution’s case by proving that the testimony the prosecution presented was false. 

Twenty-eight Florida death-row prisoners have been exonerated, more than in any other state. In 90% of the more than twenty exonerations for which the jury vote is known, jurors had not unanimously recommended death and had in some cases – like Ziegler’s – recommended life. Former Republican state senator J. Alex Villalobos, who helped write Florida’s DNA statute, told Anton that the law was designed to remove doubts as to guilt and that the prisoners should be given access to DNA testing. Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham agreed, telling the Times, “If we’re interested in the truth and interested in avoiding executing the innocent, we need to be allowing this kind of testing.”

A Veterans Day Review: Recent Cases Highlight Concerns About Veterans and the Death Penalty

As Americans become increasingly aware of the role of combat trauma in the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders, the shift in public perceptions towards veterans suffering from these disorders has played out in the courts in recent death penalty cases. In 2018, at least four military veterans facing death sentences have instead been sentenced to life in prison, and another two veterans won relief in their death-penalty cases. One military veteran has been executed so far this year.

In January, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) wrote in support of exempting mentally ill veterans from capital punishment, saying, "we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. ...[W]e can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness." Prosecutors and juries in Indiana, Florida, Colorado, and Virginia have considered the military service and service-related disorders of murder defendants and determined that life sentences were more appropriate than the death penalty. In the Virginia trial of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton, his attorneys presented evidence that he had been a model soldier who had saved the life of a fellow serviceman, but faced PTSD-related disorders and a deteriorating family life when he returned home. At Glen Law Galloway's trial in Colorado, Denver public defender Daniel King presented four days of testimony about Galloway’s character and background, including how the former Army veteran “snapped” following the collapse of his relationship with his girlfriend. King argued, “Mr. Galloway is not just the worst thing that he’s done. He’s committed many acts of kindness, friendship, service, love and duty.” In May, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas in two unrelated cases involving military veterans Darren Vann in Indiana and Esteban Santiago in Florida. Santiago faced federal charges for a mass shooting, but prosecutors agreed to a plea deal because Santiago, an Iraq war veteran, suffers from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations, had unsuccessfully sought treatment and assistance from the Veterans Administration, and had been committed to a mental hospital because of the seriousness of his mental illness.

Two death-sentenced prisoners were granted relief this year as a result of failures by their defense counsel to investigate and present mitigating evidence related to their military service and their service-related mental health disorders. Andrew Witt, an air force veteran who had been on U.S. military death row, received a life sentence after a court found his attorneys ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Robert Fisher's death sentence was reversed by a Pennsylvania federal court in part because his lawyer did not investigate or present evidence related to his service in Vietnam. Fisher was a Purple Heart recipient who struggled with brain damage, drug abuse, and mental health problems after his service.

On July 18, Ohio executed Robert Van Hook, an honorably discharged veteran who was suffering from long-term effects of physical and sexual abuse as a child and untreated mental health issues at the time of the offense. Van Hook had been unable to obtain care for his mental health and addiction issues from veterans service agencies after his discharge.

A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service.

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