Florida

Florida

Florida Supreme Court Orders Exoneration of Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr.

The Florida Supreme Court has directed that Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. (pictured) be acquitted of the murder charges for which he was sentenced to death in 2014, making him the 159th person exonerated from death row in the United States since 1973. On May 11, 2017, the court unanimously vacated Wright's convictions for the murders of his ex-girlfriend and their son, ruling that the "purely circumstantial" evidence against him was insufficient to convict. A majority of the court joined a concurring opinion by Justice Charles Canady holding that "no rational trier of fact could have found ... beyond a reasonable doubt" that Wright was the killer. Prosecutors accused Wright of murdering Paula O'Conner—a white woman with whom he had an affair—and their 15-month-old son Alijah supposedly to "avoid a child support obligation and ... maintain a 'bachelor lifestyle.'" The court noted that "none of the evidence presented at trial directly tied Wright to the murders" and that the victim's young-adult daughter, who had a volatile relationship with the victim, also had a financial motive, having received more than $500,000 in life insurance benefits as a result of her mother's and half-brother's deaths. Much of the state's case relied on the presence of a black military glove in the home of the murder victims. While Wright, a member of the Air Force, had access to that type of glove, "the State could not prove that Wright ever wore the glove, that he left it on Paula’s couch, that it came from MacDill [the base where Wright was stationed], or that it was even used in the murders." DNA tests by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported the results as inconclusive, but independent analysis by the DNA Diagnostic Center and Bode, the private labs hired by the defense and prosecution, respectively, excluded Wright as a contributor of the DNA found on the glove. The DNA analysis did not test for the presence of the victim's daughter, whom police did not investigate. Wright was convicted of the murders, and the trial court sentenced him to death after a bare 7-5 majority of the jury voted to recommend the death penalty. The Florida Supreme Court later declared death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations to be unconstitutional. Wright is the 27th person to be exonerated from death row in Florida. Nineteen of the 21 exoneration cases from Florida in which the jury vote is known have involved a non-unanimous jury recommendation of a death sentence or a judicial override of a jury recommendation of life.

Florida House Issues Apology for 1949 Lynchings and Wrongful Convictions

In 1949, Norma Padgett, a white 17-year-old, falsely accused four young black men in Groveland, Florida of kidnapping and raping her. Nearly 70 years later, the state of Florida is apologizing to the families of the "Groveland Four," two of whom were murdered and two of whom were wrongly sentenced to death. After the false accusations, enraged white residents of Lake County went on a violent rampage, shooting at and burning the homes of black residents. The Governor sought help from the National Guard to quell the violence. One of the falsely accused young men, Ernest Thomas, escaped from the county jail and was shot dead by an angry mob of 1,000 men led by Lake County sheriff Willis V. McCall. Thomas was shot 400 times. The three others who had been falsely accused were beaten into giving false confessions, then quickly tried and convicted by an all-white jury. The youngest, Charles Greenlee, who was only 16 years old, was sentenced to life in prison. Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions and ordered a new trial. During their transport from the county prison for court proceedings, Sheriff McCall claimed the pair tried to escape and shot both men, killing Shepherd. Irvin played dead, survived the shooting, and was again tried and sentenced to death. Irvin received a last-minute reprieve from execution and his sentence was commuted by the Governor. Greenlee and Irvin were both granted parole in the 1960s. Irvin died in 1970 and Greenlee in 2012. The Groveland Four, as the men came to be known, were finally given a formal apology from the Florida House of Representatives on April 19, 2017, nearly 70 years after they were first accused. Rep. Bobby DuBose (D-Fort Lauderdale), sponsored the bill and said, "This resolution, while seemingly minute, symbolizes the great state of Florida looking those families in the eyes — families, with children, who grew up not knowing their fathers but only knew their records. This resolution is us simply saying, ‘We’re sorry’ — understanding we will never know or make up for the pain we have caused." The resolution, which says the Groveland Four, “were the victims of gross injustices and that their abhorrent treatment by the criminal justice system is a shameful chapter in this state’s history,” and calls on Gov. Rick Scott to expedite posthumous pardons, passed the House unanimously. The Senate is expected to vote soon on its version of the bill. [UPDATE: On April 27, 2017, the Florida Senate approved an identical resolution.]

Poll Shows Orange and Osceola County Voters Prefer Life Sentences Over Death Penalty

A new poll of voters in Orange and Osceola counties in Florida—taken in the wake of Governor Rick Scott's removal of their locally elected State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 22 homicide cases after she announced that her office would not pursue the death penalty—shows that the counties' voters overwhelmingly prefer the use of life imprisonment over the death penalty as punishment for murder. The poll by Public Policy Polling, released on April 10, found that 62% of Orange and Osceola county respondents preferred some form of life in prison for those convicted of first-degree murder, while just 31% preferred the death penalty. Ayala's March 17 decision not to seek the death penalty in any murder cases drew praise from the Florida Black Caucus and local civil rights groups, but provoked an immediate backlash from death penalty proponents. Republican Governor Rick Scott removed Ayala—a Democrat and the state's only locally elected African-American prosecutor—from 22 murder cases and replaced her with State Attorney Brad King, a white Republican prosecutor from a neighboring judicial district. The Public Policy Polling survey found a preference for life sentences across all racial, gender, and age groups and political affiliations. 73% of black voters preferred some form of life sentence as the punishment for murder, as compared to 19% who preferred the death penalty. Whites and Latinos also preferred life sentences over the death penalty, both by margins of 29 percentage points. The preference for life sentences transcended party affiliation, although there were clear partisan differences. 76% of Democrats preferred life sentences, while 21% favored the death penalty; Independents preferred life sentences by a margin of 22 percentage points (55%-33%); and Republicans preferred life sentences by 5 percentage points (49%-44%). A majority of voters also supported a State Attorney taking a "data-driven" approach to reducing bias in sentencing and considering costs to taxpayers and the effect on victims' families when deciding whether to seek a death sentence. Kenneth B. Nunn, a professor of law at University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said, “These results clearly show that Orange and Osceola voters strongly prefer life sentences over the death penalty. State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s position on the death penalty is very much in line with the position of her constituents.” Governor Scott lost Orange County by 12 percentage points and Osceola County by 9 percentage points in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

In Expanding Dispute Over Death Penalty, Florida Governor Orders Replacement of Local Prosecutor in 21 Murder Cases

Florida Governor Rick Scott issued a series of executive orders on April 3 removing locally elected 9th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from 21 first-degree murder cases and replacing her with 5th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brad King. The removal comes two weeks after Ayala announced a policy that her office would not pursue the death penalty in murder prosecutions. The cases include a number of potential capital resentencings resulting from the Florida Supreme Court's 2016 decision declaring non-unanimous death sentences to be unconstitutional. Ayala, a Democrat whose district encompasses Orange and Osceola Counties in and around Orlando, said on March 16 that, after conducting "an evidence-based review" of the issue, she had concluded that seeking the death penalty was not cost-effective and "is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice." Ayala is the only African-American elected prosecutor in Florida. Gov. Scott previously removed her from the high-profile trial of Markeith Loyd, a defendant accused of killing his pregnant ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, also appointing King to handle that case. That decision prompted opposition from the Florida Legislative Black Caucus and the victim's parents. Democratic state Rep. Sean Shaw of Tampa called Scott's action in the 21 cases a "gross abuse of his power." Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, warned that Gov. Scott's actions set a dangerous precedent, saying, "this opens the door for governors of all political parties to cherry-pick cases away from prosecutors." Ayala has hired Roy L. Austin, Jr., a former civil rights attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, to challenge Scott's authority to issue the executive orders. Ayala's spokesperson, Eryka Washington, said Scott had not notified the State Attorney that he was issuing the executive orders and that Ayala first learned of the orders from the media. “Ms. Ayala remains steadfast in her position that the Governor is abusing his authority and has compromised the independence and integrity of the criminal justice system,” Washington said. Orange and Osceola Counties imposed a total of one death sentence from 2012-2016. Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumpter Counties—the predominantly Republican counties that make up the judicial circuit in which State Attorney King was elected—imposed six death sentences during that period.

Florida Black Caucus, Victim's Parents Urge Governor to Rescind Order Removing Prosecutor For Not Seeking Death Penalty

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus has joined more than 100 lawyers and legal experts and the parents of murder victim Sade Dixon in urging Governor Rick Scott to rescind his order removing Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) from a high-profile double murder case in which she decided to not seek the death penalty. The other victim in the case, Lt. Debra Clayton, was an Orlando police officer. Governor Scott did not speak with Dixon's family before issuing an order removing Ayala and appointing a Special Prosecutor to the case. At a press conference on March 23, Sen. Perry Thurston (D-Lauderhill), chairman of the legislative black caucus, said "Gov. Scott's hasty response to State Attorney Ayala's announcement set a dangerous precedent and is a slap in the face of the voters who carried her into office." He called the order "little more than an unfettered and uninformed power grab by the governor's office over a difference of opinion." Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa) highlighted the racial history implications of the Governor's action, saying, "Clearly all the data and all the studies show that the death penalty is applied with racial bias, particularly in Florida. This is still the case and has always been the case, and by standing against the death penalty, State Attorney Ayala is standing with communities of color." Ayala, Florida's first African-American elected state attorney, was removed by a white governor and replaced with a white prosecutor. The defendant, Markeith Loyd, is black. Both parents of Sade Dixon, Loyd's ex-girlfriend who was pregnant at the time of the murder, supported State Attorney Ayala's decision not to subject them to the ordeal of extended death penalty proceedings, and oppose Gov. Scott's decision to remove her from the case. "Life, no chance of parole, we get closure," said Ron Daniels, Dixon's father, "but now if you give him the death penalty, he comes back. Every time he appeals this family or any family has to relive that case all over again." Ayala also received support from a group of 100 law professors, judges, and attorneys, who said in a letter to Gov. Scott, "We believe that this effort to remove State Attorney Ayala infringes on the vitally important independence of prosecutors, exceeds your authority, undermines the right of residents in Orange and Osceola counties to the services of their elected leaders, and sets a dangerous precedent." Following her decision not to seek the death penalty, a white employee of the Seminole County clerk of courts wrote on Facebook that Ayala "should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree." Rep. Shaw responded: "It's 2017 and the newly elected state attorney was threatened with a lynching. That's why we're here today. The death penalty is a link to the sordid past of Florida where lynching was used to terrorize our community." The courts' employee subsequently resigned.

Florida Prosecutor Announces She Will No Longer Seek Death Sentences, Governor Moves to Exclude Her From Police-Killing Case

Saying that pursuing the death penalty "is not in the best interests of this community or in the best interests of justice," Orange-Osceola County, Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala (pictured) announced on March 16 that her office would not seek the death penalty while she is State Attorney. Ayala—the first black elected prosecutor in Florida—said that as State Attorney, it was her obligation to make policy decisions based on the evidence and that, after reviewing the evidence, she had concluded that the death penalty had failed as a deterrent, drained public resources, and made promises to family members of murders victims that the system could not keep. She said, “I am prohibited from making the severity of sentences the index of my effectiveness. Punishment is most effective when it happens consistently and swiftly. Neither describe the death penalty in this state.” As of January 2013, Orange County had more prisoners on its death row than 99.2% of U.S. counties and was among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all executions in the U.S. since 1976. However, the county has been moving away from the death penalty and had imposed only one new death sentence since 2012. Ayala's decision produced both praise and immediate backlash. Civil rights groups and faith leaders praised the announcement. Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference NAACP, called the move "a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system.” "A powerful symbol of racial injustice has now been discarded in Orange County," he said. Florida attorney general, Pam Bondi, blasted the decision as a “blatant neglect of duty.” Governor Rick Scott immediately asked Ayala to recuse her office from the high-profile prosecution of Markeith Loyd, who is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend and an Orlando police officer, and when she refused to step down, he issued an executive order appointing Lake County State Attorney Brad King, a former Vice President of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, to prosecute Loyd. That decision also provoked immediate criticism. Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said "this a dangerous precedent” and asked “Whenever the governor doesn’t like the exercise of prosecutorial decision by an elected prosecutor, he’s going to step in and appoint somebody else?”

Florida Legislature Passes Bill Eliminating Non-Unanimous Jury Recommendations for Death Penalty

A Florida bill that would require the jury to make a unanimous recommendation for death before a judge may impose a death sentence will head to Governor Rick Scott for final approval, after both houses of the Florida legislature passed it by overwhelming margins. Senate Bill 280 passed unanimously (37-0) on March 9, and the corresponding House Bill 527 passed by a 112-3 vote on March 10. If signed by the governor, the bill will bring Florida into compliance with the Florida Supreme Court's rulings in Hurst v. State and Perry v. State in 2016. Hurst struck down Florida's prior capital sentencing statute, which had allowed judges to impose the death penalty if a majority of jurors recommended death or to override a jury's recommendation of life. Perry struck down an amended version of the statute, which had permitted judges to impose a death sentence if 10 or more jurors recommended death. The Florida Supreme Court also ruled that the unanimity requirement would apply to death-row prisoners whose direct appeals had been decided after the United States Supreme Court's June 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona, which held that capital defendants had a right to a jury determination of all facts necessary to impose the death penalty. That decision is expected to overturn approximately 200 death sentences, while permitting a similar number of prisoners whose direct appeals had already been completed to be executed despite constitutional violations in their cases. Until recently, three states—Florida, Alabama, and Delaware—permitted judges to impose death sentences on the basis of non-unanimous jury recommendations for death. Non-unanimous cases accounted for more than 20% of all death sentences in the U.S. from 2010-2015 and disproportionately contributed to death-row exonerations. In 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court struck down its state's death penalty statute, holding that death sentences based upon non-unanimous jury recommendations for death were unconstitutional. The change to Florida's law would leave Alabama as the only remaining state in which a judge may impose a death sentence based upon a non-unanimous jury recommendation. 

Florida, Alabama Consider Legislation on Exoneree Compensation

As the Florida legislature considers a bill that would change Florida's "Clean Hands" policy, which denies compensation for wrongful convictions if the defendant had a prior felony record, Alabama lawmakers are deciding whether to grant compensation to Anthony Ray Hinton (pictured), who was exonerated in 2015 after spending nearly 30 years on death row. In Florida, death row exoneree Herman Lindsey told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee about his having been denied compensation because of prior unrelated felony convictions. He spoke about the difficulty he has faced finding housing or a job because the arrest for murder is still on his record. He said the "Clean Hands" Provision is, "basically saying, ‘we can take anybody that has a criminal record and say let’s falsely incarcerate him and when he found it wasn’t really him, we can actually put him out on the streets and we don’t actually even have to worry about it.’ I didn’t receive any apology. I didn’t receive any compensation.” The proposed bill would allow compensation for some exonerees who have prior nonviolent felony convictions. Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), a supporter of the bill, said, “If the state and the people of the state get it wrong, it shouldn’t matter what individuals have done in their past.” Lindsey said only four of Florida's 26 death-row exonerees have received compensation under the Clean Hands Act. “Now, perhaps, this might open the door for 10." Meanwhile, the Alabama Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration is considering an application to grant $1.5 million in compensation to Anthony Ray Hinton. The amount is based on the 30 years Hinton was wrongfully incarcerated. Two Assistant Attorneys General have written conflicting letters to the committee, with one stating, "I have found no information that indicates that Mr. Hinton's application is disqualified by any of the eligibility exceptions," while the other claims, "The fact that thirty years later different ballistic experts are unable to say conclusively that this gun fired the fatal shots, without the benefit of the original test fired projectiles used by the original examiners, is not evidence of innocence." Sen. Paul Bussman (R-Cullman) has introduced a bill to compensate Hinton $1.5 million, to be paid over a three-year period. He criticized the notion that a wrongly convicted person should be denied compensation when the state lacks evidence to convict, saying, "We can't convict someone in the court of public opinion. ... It has to be in a court of law."

Pages