America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Florida Supreme Court Vacates, Upholds Death Penalty Convictions

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
The Florida Supreme Court has reversed the murder convictions of Ralph Wright Jr. Wright had been convicted of the 2007 murder of a Pinellas County woman and her son.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that there was no direct evidence tying Wright to the murders. Wright was an Air Force officer stationed in Tampa. He met Paula O'Connor and later allegedly had his son. 

Wright denies the child was his. O'Connor and the boy were found strangled. The court says there's no physical evidence Wright committed the crimes. (Read more below.)

Death sentence overturned in James Card case

James Armando Card will be coming back to Bay County for a new sentencing hearing in the coming months after the Supreme Court of Florida overturned his death sentence.

In a 4-3 ruling issued May 4, Justices ruled James Armando Card, 70, should get a new sentencing hearing because his death sentence handed down in June of 1999 was 11-1, and not 12-0.

Card was convicted of the June 3, 1981, kidnapping and murder of Janice Franklin. Card robbed the Western Union office where Franklin worked and kidnapped her. According to testimony during his trials, Card was armed with a knife when he robbed the Western Union office.

During a struggle, Franklin's fingers were severely cut on both hands, almost severing several fingers on her right hand. Card forced Franklin in a car and drove 8 miles to a wooded area where he promised he wouldn't hurt her.

When they got to the wooded area, Card instead came up from behind her, grabbed her hair, pulled her hair back and slit her throat. The cut to her throat was 2 1/2f inches deep according to court testimony. It severed her windpipe and her esophagus and cut into the bone itself.

Card stood over her and watched her bleed. Card and Franklin knew each other and according to the court it was particularly "wicked and vile" because "Franklin knew her attacker, had to suffer during the long drive from the wounds to her hand and must have been traumatized and terrorized during the whole process.... The defendant (Card) told Vicki Elrod that he even enjoyed it."

Up next for Card is DNA testing ordered by the state which is being done by Florida Department of Law Enforcement on evidence from trial. Those results should be back within 8 weeks. A hearing on setting a date for a new penalty phase is set for mid-July.

Card is one of Bay County's longest-tenured members of death row, having been there since 1982. Only Charles Kinney Foster whose been on death row since October of 1975 has been there longer.

Card has already dodged 2 death warrants. Just a day before he was scheduled to die in 1986, the Supreme Court of Florida issued an emergency stay of execution, saying it need to take sufficient time to review new appeals from Card.

On August 18,1987, then-Governor Bob Martinez signed another death warrant, but a district court granted Card another stay of execution on September 16, 1987.

Since that time, another death warrant hasn't been signed for Card.

2 death sentences against Palm Coast killer tossed out

David Snelgrove, now 44, was sentenced to death in 2009 for killing Glyn Fowler, 84, and his wife, Vivian, 79.

The Florida Supreme Court has thrown out two death sentences against a Palm Coast man, who beat and stabbed his elderly neighbors to death 17 years ago, because jurors did not unanimously recommend death.

David Snelgrove, now 44, was sentenced to death in 2009 for killing Glyn Fowler, 84, and his wife, Vivian, 79. The couple lived across the street from Snelgrove in the city's B section. Snelgrove broke into their home in June 2000 to rob them and pawn their jewelry to support his cocaine habit. He beat and stabbed them 38 times.

In Snelgrove's case, jurors recommended death by a vote of 8-4 for each count of 1st-degree murder. Circuit Judge Kim C. Hammond, who has since retired, sentenced Snelgrove to death in 2009.

But the state Supreme Court ruled last year in a case known as Hurst that jurors must unanimously recommend death before a judge can sentence someone to die. The justices ruled that the Hurst decision is retroactive to a 2002 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court known as Ring v. Arizona.

The state Supreme Court cited the non-unanimous jury vote when it vacated Snelgrove's death sentences in the ruling released Thursday and ordered a new sentencing phase. Snelgrove's conviction stands.

Florida legislators were warned after the 2002 Ring decision about flaws in the state's death penalty but lawmakers did not require a unanimous jury vote until this year.

Snelgrove now faces a 3rd sentencing. The one the Supreme Court threw out from 2009 was his 2nd.

A jury convicted Snelgrove in 2002 of the killings. The jury in 2002 voted 7-5 to recommend Snelgrove be put to death, and Hammond sentenced him to death.

But the state Supreme Court in 2005, while upholding his conviction, struck down the death sentences because the jury had provided one sentencing recommendation for both murders.

Snelgrove lived with his aunt and cousin on Bayside Drive in the Indian Trails neighborhood. It was Snelgrove's aunt who realized something was wrong when she spotted newspapers piling up outside the Fowlers' home.

Snelgrove apparently cut himself breaking into the Fowlers' house through a back window. Snelgrove's blood was found throughout the house, including on Vivian Fowler's body.

The state Supreme Court's decision could impact a number of defendants in Volusia and Flagler counties who were convicted since 2002 and sentenced to death on less than unanimous verdicts. Troy Victorino and Jerone Hunter, who were convicted and sentenced to death for the Deltona massacre in which 6 people were killed, are likely to receive new sentencing hearings because neither received a unanimous jury vote for death.

Flagler County defendants on death row without unanimous jury votes besides Snelgrove are Cornelius Baker and William Gregory. Baker kidnapped Elizabeth Uptagrafft during a home invasion robbery in Daytona Beach in 2007 and shot her to death in Flagler County. Gregory shot his girlfriend, Skyler Meekins, and her boyfriend, Daniel Dyer, to death with a shotgun as the pair slept in her grandparent's house near Flagler Beach in 2007.

2 killers get new death sentence hearings

Barry Davis, convicted in 2015 of one of the most heinous crimes in recent Northwest Florida history, will receive a new death sentence hearing by order of the Florida Supreme Court.

The court on Thursday issued 7 rulings on death penalty convictions. 4 of them involved cases in which the defendant was convicted and sentenced to die in Florida's First Judicial Circuit.

Davis and Michael Hernandez, who was sentenced to die March 23, 2007, in Santa Rosa County for killing Ruth Everett, will return to court for a 2nd penalty phase of their trials.

The Supreme Court ruled to uphold the death penalties meted out in 2013 to Steven Cozzie and in 2005 to Jesse Guardado.

Davis, Cozzie and Guardado were all convicted and sentenced in Walton County.

"We're happy to have the 2 sentences confirmed and now we'll begin to prepare for the 2nd penalty phase for Mr. Davis," said Greg Anchors, the chief assistant state attorney for Walton County.

Anchors said Assistant State Attorney Clifton Drake will present the state's case in the 2nd death penalty hearing of Davis.

Anchors also noted that at the same time it ruled he should receive a new death penalty hearing, the Supreme Court upheld Davis' convictions for the killings of John Hughes of Santa Rosa Beach and Heidi Rhodes of Panama City Beach.

Cozzie and Guardado both were sentenced to die by unanimous 12-0 recommendation of the juries that heard their cases. Cozzie raped and killed 15-year-old tourist Courtney Wilkes and Guardado robbed and killed prominent local businesswoman Jackie Malone.

Davis and Hernandez benefited from rulings by the U.S. and Florida Supreme Courts that declared the state's death penalty procedure unconstitutional because it did not require unanimous agreement among jurors that the ultimate punishment was warranted.

The Florida Legislature passed a law this year that requires death penalties be handed out only after a jury votes 12-0 to recommend that sentence.

By the time legislators created the new law, though, the state Supreme Court had ruled that all death penalty convictions since 2002 were subject to review.

Davis was sentenced to die Aug. 31, 2015, for the murders of Hughes and Rhodes.

Although the bodies of the couple were never found, testimony from Davis' girlfriend convinced jurors that he had beaten Hughes and Rhodes unconscious and then left them submerged in a bathtub to die. He then stole all Hughes' belongings and burned the couple's bodies.

The jury recommended by a 9-3 vote to have Davis put to death for killing Hughes and 10-2 that he should die for killing Rhodes.

A Santa Rosa County jury recommended by an 11-1 tally in 2007 that Michael Hernandez be put to death for the killing of Ruth Everett, the mother of a man Hernandez and Christopher Shawn Arnold set out to rob Nov. 8, 2004.

After entering Everett's home, Hernandez broke Ruth Everett's neck and slashed her throat.

Anchors said the Supreme Court has been "spasmodically" ruling recently on requests from around the state for rehearings of death penalty recommendations. Thursday's rulings indicated it had turned its focus to the First Judicial Circuit.

There are 2 remaining First Judicial Circuit cases that have not been ruled on. Those are:

-- Robert Hobart, for whom a Santa Rosa County jury recommended death by a 7-5 vote on Dec. 3, 2012. Hobart was convicted of killing Robert Hamm and Tracie Tolbert.

-- Thomas McCoy, who was sentenced to death Nov. 19, 2010, in Walton County for killing Curtis Brown. Jurors voted 11-1 to recommend death.

Anthony Cozzie death sentence upheld by Supreme Court of Florida

The latest appeal for Steven Anthony Cozzie has been denied by the Florida's highest court.

In an opinion released Thursday, the Supreme Court of Florida upheld Cozzie's death sentence.

In the 6-1 ruling, the justices said Cozzie's sentence "is proportional in relation to other death sentences that this Court has upheld."

Cozzie, 27, strangled, beat and sexually battered Courtney Wilkes, 15, on June 16, 2011 in a wooded area near Seagrove Beach in Walton County. Wilkes was on vacation with her family when the murder happened on the day before the family was scheduled to go home.

A jury recommended death for Cozzie by a 12-0 vote when he was convicted of the crime. Cozzie was 21 when the crime occurred.

In upholding the jury's recommendation of death Justices wrote "This Court has repeatedly affirmed the death penalty where the defendant has kidnapped, sexually battered, and murdered a child victim.... Accordingly, Cozzie's death sentence is proportionate. For the foregoing reasons, we affirm Cozzie's conviction for 1st-degree premeditated or felony murder with a weapon and his sentence of death."

Death Sentence Upheld for Walton Murderer

The conviction and death sentence of a Walton County murderer was upheld Thursday by Florida's Supreme Court.

The court ruled the trial judge was not responsible for any errors that merited an appeal and the capital sentence he received was constitutional.

In addition to the death penalty for felony 1st-degree murder, Cozzie received the maximum sentences possible for separate counts of sexual battery, aggravated child abuse, and kidnapping with a weapon with the intent to commit a felony.

Cozzie will serve all these sentences consecutively as punishment for the murder of 15-year-old Georgia resident Courtney Wilkes.

Wilkes was on vacation with her family in Seagrove Beach in June 2011 when Cozzie raped and killed her.

Sources: WFSU news, WJHG news, newsjournalonline.com, nwfdailynews.com, mypanhandle.com, May 12, 2017

Florida Supreme Court sets aside death sentence for mass-murderer Nelson Serrano

Nelson Serrano
Nelson Serrano
BARTOW — Nelson Serrano, who was sentenced to death in 2007 for the execution-style killings of four people at a Bartow manufacturing plant, is getting a new sentencing hearing.

The Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision released Thursday, set aside the four death sentences against Serrano, 78, and sent the case back to Circuit Court for resentencing.

The ruling doesn’t overturn Serrano’s convictions for the murders, nor does it mean he will be released from prison. At resentencing, the jury will decide between life imprisonment and the death penalty in a case that remains the worst mass murder in Polk County history.

State Attorney Brian Haas said Friday his office will seek the death penalty against Serrano.

“We ... have already begun to prepare for the retrial of the penalty phase,” he said.

He said it would be at least several months before the case goes before a 12-member jury.

A Polk County jury convicted Serrano in October 2006 for killing his former business partner and another former partner’s son, daughter and son-in-law at Erie Manufacturing in Bartow in December 1997.

Prosecutors said Serrano, who had been ousted from Erie, traveled to Atlanta on business, then secretly flew back to Florida, committed the murders and returned to Atlanta using aliases to make airline and car rental reservations.

Investigators broke Serrano’s alibi in 2001 when they discovered his fingerprint on a parking garage receipt at the Orlando International Airport the day of the killings.

By the time a Polk County grand jury issued a sealed indictment in 2001, Serrano had returned to his native Ecuador, which refused to extradite him because of Florida’s death penalty.

In September 2002, agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement worked with Ecuadorian agents to deport Serrano, who had claimed American citizenship.

Circuit Judge Susan Roberts sentenced him to death for each of the four murders in June 2007.

In March 2011, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the conviction and death sentence against Serrano on initial appeal.

Thursday’s ruling by the state’s high court came on a subsequent appeal.

The court based its decision Thursday on a January 2016 ruling affecting most Florida murder cases involving imposition of the death penalty after June 2002.

The 2016 ruling, called Hurst vs. Florida, rendered the state’s death penalty process unconstitutional, forcing the Legislature to revise it. That revision, which became law earlier this year, mandates that jurors must agree unanimously in their decision to recommend the death penalty. Before that, state law required only a simple majority.

Meanwhile, in 2002, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Arizona case required that juries, not judges, decide whether prosecutors have proven the facts supporting a death sentence. That clashed with Florida’s system, which gave judges that authority, but Florida elected not to change its death penalty process.

The Hurst ruling forced that change, and the Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the revised law applies to condemned inmates who were sentenced after 2002 without a unanimous jury recommendation.

At Serrano’s trial, jurors voted 9-3 to recommend that the judge sentence him to death for each of the four killings.

Marcia Silvers, a Miami lawyer representing Serrano, said she thinks the high court made the correct decision.

“We are grateful that the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death penalty, acknowledging that a unanimous verdict is the cornerstone of our justice system,” she said.

In Thursday’s ruling, the three dissenting justices said they didn’t agree that Serrano’s death sentences should be vacated.

And George Patisso, whose son George Jr., was among those who died, said he was devastated when he learned of the resentencing.

“We have to go through this all over again,” he said Friday from his home in New York. “I really don’t want to, but for my son, I will because I want to see this to the end. (Serrano) ruined so many people’s lives.”

Patisso said he and his wife, Mary Ann, hope Serrano will remain on death row.

“We want him to suffer because he has made us suffer for the last 20 years,” he said. “He has devastated us. It just doesn’t go away.”

His wife, Mary Ann, said she doesn’t want him to be able to interact with other inmates.

“I want him to sit alone,” she said.

George Patisso Jr. was 27 when he was working at Erie Manufacturing, where his father-in-law, Phil Dosso, was a partner. He worked with his brother-in-law, 35-year-old Frank Dosso, and George Gonsalvez, 69, another partner in the business.

All three were gunned down in an office about 6 p.m. Dec. 3, 1997, each shot in the head.

Diane Dosso Patisso, a 28-year-old prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office in Bartow, had arrived at Erie to pick her husband when she was shot in another office. Prosecutors said it appeared she had walked in on the shootings and was killed because she had witnessed the crime.

Tommy Ray, a retired FDLE agent who broke Serrano’s alibi and orchestrated his deportation, said Friday he’s concerned for the families involved.

“The Dossos are devastated,” he said. “The real travesty is for the families that have to go through this all over again.”

Francisco Serrano, who has stood by his father throughout the trial and appeals, couldn’t be located for comment Friday.

Source: News Chief, Suzie Schottelkotte, May 12, 2017

Florida Supreme Court Orders Death-Row Inmate's Release; Calls Evidence Weak

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A former Air Force sergeant on death row for the murders of an ex-girlfriend and their son will be set free after the Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that there was no physical evidence to convict him and that prosecutors failed to look at others who may have had a motive to kill them.

In a ruling that reads like a murder mystery, the court said Ralph Wright, who was married to another woman, had a motive to kill Paula O'Conner and their 15-month-old son Alijah, and there was a window of time in which he could have committed the murders. But the ruling also noted that there was no physical evidence to tie Wright to the crime and said others also had a motive and the opportunity to kill them, including O'Conner's daughter Tori Christopher.

"Wright was the only person who had a motive to kill Alijah to avoid a child support obligation and a divorce and he may have been the only person who had a motive to kill Paula in order to maintain a 'bachelor lifestyle,' but Tori had a $540,000 motive to kill them both," the court wrote in its opinion.

Christopher had been in trouble with the law, had fought with her mother about the teen's boyfriends and caring for her half brother, and she met with an insurance company the day of her mother's funeral about collecting $540,000 in life insurance — $400,000 of which was supposed to be put into a trust for Alijah, but went to Christopher because he was dead, the court ruling stated.

In addition, the ruling said, O'Conner had relationships with two St. Petersburg police officers, including a married officer who responded to the crime scene and who had been at her house days earlier, and her former mailman, who was also married.

"There is no fingerprint, footprint, blood, fiber, pattern impression, or other physical evidence tying Wright to the crime scene. There is no cell tower evidence placing him in the vicinity of the crime scene. There are no inculpatory statements. There is no murder weapon," the court wrote. "The only evidence presented by the State to prove that Wright was the murderer is the fact that he had motive and opportunity."

And that, the ruling said, isn't enough to convict someone.

The court also noted that investigators focused solely on Wright and didn't test Christopher's DNA or the DNA of any other potential suspect. Christopher spent her insurance money within a year, yet investigators never looked into her financial records.

The mailman who was having an affair with O'Conner, Neil Hunt, initially told investigators that they were just friends, and then admitted lying to them about the sexual relationship when he was confronted with text messages he had sent her, including one that mentioned Wright. Still, investigators didn't look into where he was at the time of the murder or interview Hunt's wife, the court documents noted.

Wright's attorney left her office early and couldn't be reached for comment Thursday. A telephone number found for Christopher had been disconnected.

Source: The Associated Press, May 11, 2017

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