Florida

Florida

Nation's Longest Serving Death Row Inmate Dies 40 Years After Conviction

Gary Alvord, a Florida inmate who spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the country, died on May 19 of natural causes. Alvord was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death for murder almost 40 years ago, on April 9, 1974. He suffered from schizophrenia and had no close family. Bill Sheppard, who represented Alvord for almost four decades, said, “Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill. The death penalty is getting us nothing but broke.” In the time Alvord spent on death row, 75 other inmates were executed in Florida, many of whom spent half as long as he did on death row. Alvord faced execution at least twice, but his severe mental illness prevented the execution from being carried out. In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital to receive treatment for his psychiatric condition, but doctors refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well enough so he can be killed. Alvord’s final appeal expired in 1998.

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: DNA Results Indicate Death Row Inmate May Be Innocent

Lawyers for Clemente Javier Aguirre recently presented the results of DNA testing to a Florida court, casting serious doubt on his guilt.  Aguirre was sentenced to death for the murder of two women in 2006. Although the DNA evidence was available at the time of his trial, Aguirre's trial lawyer never requested testing of the crime-scene evidence. Aguirre's current lawyers said that DNA results from dozens of items did not reveal Aguirre’s blood at the crime scene. Instead, the tests found blood belonging to the daughter of one of the victims, a woman with a history of mental illnessm who may be responsible for the killings. Nina Morrison, a lawyer at the Innocence Project who is assisting with Aguirre’s case said, “It’s the rare case in which you have DNA in multiple places at the scene of a homicide showing the blood of someone other than a convicted person.”

EDITORIALS: Miami Herald Calls on Governor to Block Fast-Track Executions

An editorial in the Miami Herald called on Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) to veto a bill recently passed by the legislature requiring the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. The editorial listed several death row inmates who were exonerated after spending more than 10 years on death row, and noted, “All of them might have been executed if the legislation that's heading to the governor's desk had been the law.” The paper urged Gov. Scott to block the legislation and wait for a committee appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to study the state’s judicial system to release its findings. The editorial concluded, “If the point is to reduce the stay on death row to less than a decade, it's the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote.” Read the Editorial below.

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Information About Foreign Citizens on U.S. Death Rows

New information on foreign nationals facing the death penalty in the U.S. is now available through Mark Warren of Human Rights Research. This DPIC page includes information on 143 foreign citizens from 37 countries on state and federal death rows. California has the most (59 inmates), followed by Texas (24), and Florida (23). Many of these inmates were not informed of their right to contact their country's represenatives under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a treaty the U.S. has ratified and relies upon to protect its citizens when they travel abroad. Thirty-one (31) foreign nationals have been executed in the U.S. since 1976, many of whom were not properly informed of their rights under this treaty. Among countries, Mexico has the largest number (60) of its citizens on death row in the U.S. 

EDITORIALS: "Florida's Death Penalty Needs a Fresh Look"

A recent editorial in Florida’s Tampa Bay Times called for lawmakers to study the state’s death penalty because of its high number of exonerations and death sentences. Using information from DPIC's recent 2012 Year End Report, the editorial noted that 2012 marked the second consecutive year in which the state led the country in new death sentences. The editorial suggested that one of the reasons for these numbers was likely Florida's failure to require a unanimous jury recommendation for death sentences, one of the few states in the country with such a policy. While implying that the better path might be complete abolition of the death penalty, the editorial called for changes in the sentencing process, saying that its current procedures are haphazard and error-prone.  The paper concluded, “Florida is long overdue for a comprehensive look at its death penalty system… It is time to better understand why the state imposes the penalty disproportionately and ends up exonerating so many. Basic justice demands it.”  Read the full editorial below.

INNOCENCE: Florida Death Row Inmate Acquitted at Re-trial

On December 21, Seth Penalver was acquitted of all charges and will be freed from Florida's death row, 13 years after being sentenced to death. He was originally charged with a triple murder and armed robbery that occurred in Broward County in 1994.  His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury.  At his second trial in 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court (Penalver v. Florida, No. SC00-1602, Feb. 2, 2006) overturned his conviction because the prosecution had introduced improper evidence at his trial. A co-defendant, Pablo Ibar, was also sentenced to death and remains on death row. A video from the crime scene helped convict Ibar, but images showing another suspect were inconclusive. Penalver has always maintained his innocence. At Penalver's most recent trial, which began 5 months ago, the jury was deadlocked 10-2, and both the prosecution and defense agreed to replace two jurors with alternates who had attended the proceedings. The newly constituted jury began deliberations afresh and found Penalver not guilty of all charges. Penalver is the 142nd person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 24th such person in Florida, the most of any state.

EDITORIALS: Preserving Independent Funding for Death Penalty Representation

A recent editorial in the Miami Herald applauded a court decision finding that the costs of represening defendants in Florida death penalty cases should be kept separate from the judges’ annual budget. A state judge held it would be unconstitutional to have judges making decisions about attorneys' fees when the money for such expenses comes from the judges' own resources. The editorial stated, "We depend on the court system to dispense justice—period. Not justice on a budget, not justice on the cheap, not justice with 'ka-ching' in the back of a judge’s mind." The costs formerly came out of general state revenue. Death penalty attorney David Markus said the law would have made “judges think twice about paying a lawyer, knowing that he or she has to also think about paying his secretary or buying copier paper.” The editorial called on lawmakers to heed the recommendations of the Florida Innocence Commission, which made several recommendations to correct the high rate of wrongful convictions in the state. The editors wrote, “Lawmakers truly interested in reform would take the recommendations seriously, even though they require more-adequate funding. Instead, the Legislature has steadily chipped away at courts’ budgets for the past six years, while the volume of cases has increased. That’s a stumbling block to real reform.” Florida leads the country in exonerations from death row, with 23 wrongful convictions overturned since 1973.  Read full editorial below.

MENTAL ILLNESS: At 11th Hour, Supreme Court Upholds Stay of Execution for Florida Inmate

On October 23, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a last-minute federal appeals court stay-of-execution for John Ferguson. Ferguson had been scheduled to be executed earlier that day, but his lawyers filed a series of motions arguing he was mentally incompetent. In September, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed Ferguson’s death warrant for October 16, but allowed time for a mental competency examination. A series of stays and reversals shifted the date to October 18, then to October 23, or later.  Mental health professionals have diagnosed Ferguson as paranoid schizophrenic with a long history of mental illness. Earlier, the ABA released a statement: "The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severely mentally ill for more than 40 years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated." The Court of Appeals will review whether the Florida Supreme made an unreasonable application of the law or determination of the facts in denying Ferguson's state appeal. Briefs must be filed by November 6. The U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly denied prior requests for a stay.

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