Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Challenges to Florida’s death penalty impact three Manatee death row inmates

Raiford's Florida State Prison
Raiford's Florida State Prison
As Florida’s death penalty laws continue to face challenges and changes, all of Manatee County’s death row inmates have each been granted a stay or hearing in their cases.

Of the 362 inmates currently on death row in Florida, three are from Manatee County: Delmer Smith, Daniel Burns Jr. and Melvin Trotter.

Smith, 45, was sentenced to death on May 28, 2013, by Circuit Judge Peter Dubensky following a unanimous recommendation from the same jury that found him guilty of first-degree murder for the fatal beating of Kathleen Briles in her Terra Ceia home on Aug. 3, 2009.

On June 6, Circuit Judge Diana Moreland issued an order following a case management hearing on Smith’s motion for post-conviction relief granting an evidentiary hearing on six of seven claims.

The six claims make several allegations of ineffective counsel. Included is a claim arguing that detectives with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office didn’t have a search warrant for Smith’s cell phone and that the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California requiring such a warrant should be retroactively applied to his case.

Moreland ordered that Smith be present during the hearing set from Oct. 2-5. The next status conference is set for 10:30 a.m. Sept. 5. Smith could get a new trial depending on the outcome of the hearing.

Burns, 72, was sentenced to death on June 2, 1988, for the Aug. 18, 1987, fatal shooting of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeffrey Dale Young.

Trotter, 56, was sentenced to death May 18, 1987, for the June 16, 1986, fatal stabbing of Palmetto grocery store owner Virgie Langford.

In April, the Florida Supreme Court granted Burns and Trotter stays based on another pending case in Hitchcock v. State.

Smith is currently housed at Florida State Prison, a maximum security prison for men in Raiford. Burns and Trotter are housed at Union Correctional Institution, another maximum security prison for men in Raiford.

Florida’s death penalty sentencing laws went into limbo following the Jan. 12, 2016, U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hurst vs. Florida that ruled it was unconstitutional that in Florida a judge, not a jury, has the ultimate say in whether to sentence someone to death.

The state Legislature worked quickly to address the issue, passing corrective legislation on March 7, 2016.

The case was remanded back to the Florida Supreme Court, and on Oct. 14 it ruled that a jury must find that at least one aggravating factor was proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that the aggravating factor is sufficient and the aggravating factor outweighs the mitigating circumstance. In Hurst v. State, the court also ruled that a unanimous vote by the jury is necessary to impose death.

On the same date, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in Perry v. State that Hurst also required a unanimous vote by a jury to sentence someone to death. As a result, the decision ruled the new legislation passed did not address all the unconstitutional issues raised by Hurst.

Later in a Dec. 22 ruling in Asay v. State, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that only death row inmates whose cases were finalized after the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Ring vs. Arizona qualified for a resentencing hearing. Ring vs. Arizona requires a jury to find aggravating factors in order for the imposition of the death penalty.

The current pending case Hitchcock v. State is arguing that Hurst should apply retroactively to all death row inmates.

The Legislature again made it a top priority, and on March 13 Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill changing the state statute requiring a unanimous vote by a jury in order to impose the death penalty.

Judges across the state have ruled repeatedly that although the state’s sentencing scheme had been ruled unconstitutional and needed to be corrected, it did not eliminate the death penalty all together or prevent prosecutors from seeking it.

Source: Bradenton Herald, Jessica De Leon, July 1, 2017

Miami murder conviction to test Florida’s new death-penalty law

Kendrick Silver
Kendrick Silver
Twelve jurors deliberated just half-an-hour Wednesday before convicting a man of murdering a security guard outside a popular North Miami-Dade restaurant.

Now, they will become the first jury in Miami to be asked to agree unanimously on meting out the death penalty.

Wednesday’s verdict came three months after Florida lawmakers, compelled by U.S. and Florida supreme court decisions, changed the law so that jurors must agree in unison when handing down execution as punishment for murder.

The same jury will reconvene later this summer to consider Silver’s sentence. DNA on a bloody ski mask was the key evidence.

At closing arguments on Wednesday, prosecutors said Silver — dressed in black and wielding a 9mm pistol — targeted 62-year-old Solmeus Accimeus as he sat in his car at closing time outside Esther’s Restaurant.

Intending to rob the guard, Silver walked up to the car and fired at the guard, penetrating the man’s aorta, spraying blood all over the gunman, prosecutors said. Moments later, as he fled, Silver threw away the ski mask, which had Accimeus’ blood on the outside, and Silver’s DNA on the inside, prosecutors said.

Prosecutor Gail Levine told jurors that Silver, his mouth having been covered in blood, later blurted out to some friends:

“ ‘Can you smell it? Can you smell the death on me?’ ” Levine said. “The words of this defendant after he murdered Solmeus Accimeus in cold blood ... those words alone tell the whole story.”

Prosecutors Levine, Tammy Pitiriciu and Josh Hubner began presenting evidence on June 21.

Assistant Public Defender Steven Yermish suggested to jurors that the DNA evidence was flawed and didn’t prove he wore the mask during the murder.

“The DNA is not as definitive as one would think,” Yermish said.

This will be the second time Silver has faced possible execution.

A different jury, in 2015, convicted Silver of murdering a jogger in Coral Gables, part of a crime spree that also included shooting up a pizzeria in Delray Beach. Jurors, however, decided against recommending the death penalty, and Silver was sentenced to life in prison.

For decades in Florida, prosecutors only needed at least a majority seven votes for a death-penalty recommendation, with the judge ultimately meting out the punishment.

Then in January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because defendants have a right to a trial by jury.

Florida lawmakers responded by rewriting the state law, replacing the judge’s override and requiring a vote of at least 10 of 12 jurors to sentence someone to death.

But the Florida Supreme Court later ruled that the new law was unconstitutional because jury verdicts need to be unanimous.

In March, the Legislature passed a new law requiring jurors to unanimously agree on a death sentence.

Source: Miami Herald, David Ovalle, June 29, 2017

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