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What new law, rulings mean for Palm Beach County’s 7 on Death Row

When dozens of law enforcement officers gathered in a Palm Beach County courtroom in March to make sure a convicted West Palm Beach cop killer remained on Death Row, it heralded the beginning of a parade of the county’s most notorious murderers.

During the next several months, attorneys representing others who have spent decades on Death Row also will be in circuit court to argue that their clients should benefit from rulings by the U.S. and Florida supreme courts that prompted a new state law, which changes the way the death penalty is meted out.

The names of those who have already filed papers challenging their death sentences reads like a Who’s Who of the county’s most vicious criminals:

  • Duane Owen, convicted in the 1984 stabbing and beating deaths of a Delray Beach babysitter and a Boca Raton mother.
  • Jerry Haliburton, who in 1981 told his brother he fatally stabbed his neighbor 31 times just to see if he could kill a human being.
  • Carlton Francis, who stabbed 66-year-old twin sisters to death in their West Palm Beach home in 1997.

They are among seven men, including double-murderer Ronnie Knight, who are on Death Row for murders committed in Palm Beach County. The others either have or are expected to file similar pleas for mercy. Of all of them, Francis is most likely to get a resentencing hearing based on the rules that now exist.

“It’s a mess,” said attorney Martin McClain, who has represented many of the 366 inmates who are now on Death Row.

The turmoil began in January 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Hurst v. Florida, struck down the state’s death penalty as unconstitutional because juries only made recommendations to judges, who determined whether a convicted murderer would live or die.

It became more complicated later that year when the Florida Legislature passed a law, requiring juries to vote at least 10-2 for death before it could be imposed. That law was then struck down by the Florida Supreme Court as unconstitutional, ruling that jury decisions on death, like those made about a defendant’s guilt, must be unanimous.

That prompted the Legislature in March to pass a law that did just that.

Each of the events constituted separate “earthquakes in Florida capital law,” McClain said. But, he and other death penalty opponents said it is another decision by the Florida Supreme Court that will keep the state’s death penalty in limbo for years.

While sorting out the impacts of their decision to require juries to unanimously vote for death, state high court justices ruled it would affect only Death Row inmates whose sentences became final after June 24, 2002.

That is the date the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on an Arizona case, laid the groundwork for Florida’s death penalty system to be declared unconstitutional. Inmates whose sentences became final before that date — even if the jury recommendation wasn’t unanimous — can’t challenge their sentences, the court ruled.

While some have suggested that as many as half of the 367 inmates on Death Row would get new sentencing hearings, a spokeswoman from Attorney General Pam Bondi said the exact number is unknown because of the various legal issues swirling around individual cases, including the impact of the 2002 cutoff.

Attorney Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University, said the cutoff date doesn’t make sense.

“The statute has always been constitutional. The procedure has always been unconstitutional. The only thing that changed is the U.S. Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional,” she said. “Drawing a line at 2002 and suggesting the statute somehow became unconstitutional in 2002 goes against common sense.”

Some of the oldest cases are the most problematic, she said. The convictions came before advances in forensic science, such as DNA analysis, and before courts outlawed the executions of the mentally ill and intellectually disabled.

However, the 2002 cutoff date has made some decisions easier for trial court judges. Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes took less than 30 minutes in March to decide that Norberto “Spiderman” Pietri should remain on Death Row for fatally shooting West Palm Beach police officer Brian Chappell in 1988, even though the jury vote recommending the death penalty in his case was 8-4.

Because Pietri’s sentence became final in June 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal, Kastrenakes ruled Pietri can’t benefit from the recent turmoil around the state’s death penalty laws. He also ruled that the viciousness of the crime made Pietri’s death sentence “absolutely appropriate.”

While defense lawyers have criticized the 2002 cutoff as arbitrary, the Florida Supreme Court has stuck by its decision. It recently ordered a new sentencing hearing for James Card, who was convicted in the 1981 stabbing and torture death of a Western Union clerk in Panama City, because his sentence became final four days after the Arizona case was decided by the nation’s high court in 2002.

Florida Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, who co-sponsored the recent legislation that mandates jury decisions on death be unanimous, said he tried to persuade lawmakers to make the measure retroactive. The only inmates left on Death Row would have been those who had received unanimous jury recommendations for death, he said.

McClain said it should have been taken a step further. The high court could have avoided years of litigation by commuting the sentences of all inmates on Death Row to life imprisonment, he said.

That’s what happened in 1972, after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Furman v. Georgia, ruled that the way the death penalty was carried out across the nation was unconstitutional. It took seven years for Florida to pass new laws and resume executions. The state then executed 92 people between 1979 and 2016, when they were halted again. Two were put to death for crimes in Palm Beach County. Another 26 people who were condemned to death have been exonerated, the most of any state in the nation.

“It would have saved a lot of money and the victims’ families wouldn’t have to go through another hearing,” Bracy, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said of Florida’s new law. “There wasn’t the appetite to address retroactivity in either the House or the Senate.”

Florida Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, who sponsored a similar measure in the House, said the Legislature was intent on correcting the flaw in the death penalty, not opening up the entire volatile issue for debate. But he acknowledged that the Florida Supreme Court decision restricting the number of Death Row inmates who benefit from the new system raises additional legal issues.

“It’s highly unusual that they made it partially retroactive,” Sprowls, a former prosecutor, said.“Either it’s retroactive or it’s not.”

But he said he doesn’t think the impacts are as widespread as death penalty opponents claim. The state’s highest court, which already spends much of its time reviewing death penalty appeals, will continue to work through the cases. Eventually, questions raised by death penalty opponents will be answered.

Some legislators say it’s just a matter of time before the death penalty ceases to exist. Recent public opinion polls show support for the death penalty is at historic lows. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 49 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42 percent oppose it. Polls of Florida residents have produced similar results.

But Rep. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park said it will be up to the courts to act on the public’s growing disenchantment with the death penalty.

“I don’t see the legislative branch abolishing it anytime soon, so it will be up to the judicial branch,” he said. “I think they will find it to be unconstitutional. I think one day they will. But I don’t think it will be in the near future.”

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