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Texas Should Not Have Executed Robert Pruett

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Update: Robert Pruett was executed by lethal injection on Thursday.
Robert Pruett is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas Thursday. He has never had a chance to live outside a prison as an adult. Taking his life is a senseless wrong that shows how badly the justice system fails juveniles.
Mr. Pruett was 15 years old when he last saw the outside world, after being arrested as an accomplice to a murder committed by his own father. Now 38, having been convicted of a murder while incarcerated, he will be put to death. At a time when the Supreme Court has begun to recognize excessive punishments for juveniles as unjust, Mr. Pruett’s case shows how young lives can be destroyed by a justice system that refuses to give second chances.
Mr. Pruett’s father, Sam Pruett, spent much of Mr. Pruett’s early childhood in prison. Mr. Pruett and his three siblings were raised in various trailer parks by his mother, who he has said used drugs heavily and often struggled to feed the children. Wh…

Another death penalty foul-up in Florida | Editorial

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
Florida continues to show the nation how not to implement the death penalty.

It didn’t get much attention outside the Tampa Bay area, but Ralph Wright Jr., recently became the 27th Death Row inmate to be exonerated. Florida has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the number of inmates released from Death Row.

In May, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously found insufficient evidence to support Wright’s first-degree murder convictions for killing Patricia O’Conner and her 15-month-old son, Alijah. Their bodies were discovered 10 years ago in O’Conner’s St. Petersburg home.

O’Conner had met Wright, who was married at the time, on a dating website. She became pregnant with Wright’s child, but Wright denied being the father. O’Conner then hired an attorney. She sent letters to Wright, Wright’s wife and Wright’s supervisors at MacDill Air Force Base demanding that he help to support the child, who had severe health problems. O’Conner also used a website to criticize him. O’Conner filed a paternity action three weeks before she was killed.

Prosecutors alleged Wright thus had motive. As the justices noted, however, no physical evidence tied Wright to the crime scene. No cell phone records placed him in the vicinity. The medical examiner concluded O’Conner had been strangled and Alijah suffocated, but there was no murder weapon. “While motive and opportunity might create a suspicion that Wright committed the murders,” the justices wrote, “even deep suspicions are not sufficient to sustain the convictions.”

Even if Wright’s conviction had stood, his sentence likely would not have held up. Which brings us to the current, broader problem with capital punishment in Florida.

In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upended the system. The justices ruled Florida unconstitutionally allowed judges, not juries, to impose the death penalty. Juries recommend a sentence, but the judge decides, even though juries are finders of fact.

In addition, Florida required only a majority vote of the jury for a recommendation of death, even though a 12-0 vote is necessary for conviction. Florida thus was a shaky outlier when it came to capital punishment.

For decades, political leaders in Tallahassee had ignored advice from legal experts on how to improve the system. When Jeb Bush was governor, he favored a 10-year limit on Death Row appeals. Had such a limit been in place, Florida would have executed seven men who later were exonerated from Death Row.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, however, the Legislature raised the jury recommendation threshold to 10-2. But last October, the Florida Supreme Court found that change insufficient. So this year, the Legislature required a unanimous vote to recommend death.

That ruling, though, made subject to review many Death Row cases in which the recommendation had been just a majority. These inmates weren’t guaranteed a reduction in sentence. Still, the Death Row population is down to 363, the lowest since 2005. Florida hasn’t executed anyone for 18 months.

In Ralph Wright’s case, the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was 7-5 — the minimum. Despite their verdict, some jurors might have wondered about the defense’s theory that O’Conner’s daughter was the killer. She collected $540,000 in life insurance payouts — showing up for the money on the day of the funerals. Investigators never interviewed her.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, roughly 75 percent of jury recommendations in Florida capital punishment cases have been less than unanimous. Indeed, it might surprise people to hear which cases gave at least one juror pause.

Example: Tavares Calloway. The Miami-Dade man killed five people in 2009, hog-tying them, debating which ones would live and then shooting each in the head. Yet the jury recommendation was just 7-5. Example: the 2012 murder of a Brevard County sheriff’s deputy. The recommendation was 10-2.

Even in the horrible murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in 2004, the jury vote was 10-2. A Sarasota County judge last week partially granted Joseph Smith’s request for a new sentencing hearing.

We can appreciate the difficulty these rehearings pose for victims’ families. The problem, though, is the slipshod nature of Florida’s capital punishment system. The Legislature could have made things right years ago. Blame the current turmoil not on the courts, but on the state’s politicians.

Source: Sun Sentinel, Editorial, August 3, 2017. Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Gary Stein and Editor-in-Chief Howard Saltz.

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