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July 22, 2018

Noting new challenges in securing death sentences now that juror unanimity is required in Florida

This extended local article, headlined "South Florida killers avoiding death row under new law," spotlights the new capital realities in Florida now that the state was forced by new constitutional rulings to require unanimous jury verdicts to secure death sentences. Here are excerpts:

South Florida juries appear to be less likely, so far, to send convicted killers to death row under the state’s newest death penalty law.  Two juries in Broward County decided to spare the lives of convicted killers in the past week in cases where capital punishment would have seemed likely just a few years ago.

On July 16, convicted cop killers Bernard Forbes, Eloyn Ingraham and Andre Delancy learned they would not face execution for the 2006 ambush murder of Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Brian Tephford.  And on July 19, Eric Montgomery’s life was spared by the same jury that convicted him of fatally shooting his stepdaughter in the face, chasing down her terrified mother and shooting her to death while his own grandmother physically tried to stop him, taking a bullet in the process.

In three first-degree murder trials in Palm Beach County since September, juries have recommended life sentences for the men they convicted. The challenge appears to be the stringent requirement of the death penalty law passed in the spring of 2017.  The state now requires juries to unanimously find at least one aggravating factor justifying the imposition of the death penalty, and a second unanimous vote recommending it....

Simple majorities were required before 2016, but a combination of federal and state supreme court decisions found that without a unanimous verdict, Florida’s death penalty process was unconstitutional.

Since the newest law was enacted, Broward juries have rejected the death penalty in three of four cases. In each of those cases, the defense put up a fight, calling witnesses and urging jurors to show mercy.  The unanimous death decision came against Peter Avsenew, convicted of killing a Wilton Manors couple near Christmas 2010, using their credit cards, stealing their car and trying to hide out at his mother’s house in Polk County.  After his conviction, Avsenew fired his defense lawyers and represented himself in front of the jury, making no effort to plead for his life or show a hint of remorse. “I have no regrets in my life and I am proud of the decisions I’ve made,” he said.

Defense lawyers and prosecutors agree that it’s too soon to determine whether the new law will result in a long term reduction in the number of capital sentences. According to the state corrections department, Florida sent 12 inmates to death row in 2014 and 2015.  From 2017 to 2018 so far, four have been condemned: one each from Collier, Polk, Duval and St. John’s County. But in Palm Beach, prosecutors have not gotten a death penalty since 1998, even under the old law....

“Whenever you have 12 people in a room, it’s hard to get them to agree on anything,” said former Broward prosecutor Marjorie Sommer, now a jury consultant with Focus Consulting Services.

Potential jurors in death penalty cases are typically removed if they have philosophical objections to capital punishment.  But sometimes they slip through. Last year, a Broward jury convicted Jacqueline Luongo of killing her roommate for insurance money, stuffing her body in a closet for days while disguising herself as her victim to make bank withdrawals.

When it came time to deliberate over the penalty, juror Sarah Miller said she was stunned to learn that a fellow panelist had no intention of even considering death.  “She faked her way onto the jury,” said Miller. “It was so unfair to the victim’s family. It didn’t sit well with me. We didn’t do justice.”  The vote, Miller said, was 11-1.  Luongo was sentenced to life in prison.

The outcome of that case has Miller worried that securing a death penalty in Broward will be impossible under the new law. Miller lives in Parkland and is a 2012 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, scene of last February’s mass shooting.  She worries that if the shooter is convicted, he will escape the death penalty because of the new law.  “It’s very scary to me to think that ... another dishonest juror pretends to be open minded about it,” she said.

July 22, 2018 at 03:56 PM | Permalink

Comments

The legislature must write an algorithm for a death sentencing robot. Machines are always 100 better than living beings. Compare your commute to work in a Mercedes to one on a horse, on a snow day. Get rid of these biased judges and jurors. These biased living beings violate the Equal Protection Clause inherent in the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Such an algorithm would end all disparities in sentencing.


The algorithm would be published in plain English, giving proper notice to future defendants.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 22, 2018 5:39:15 PM

An idiot is an idiot, is an idiot, is an idiot.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Jul 23, 2018 6:25:13 AM

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