Thursday, September 4, 2003
Death penalty ruling may trigger more challenges
By HENRY FREDERICK | News-Journal Legal Affairs Writer
DAYTONA BEACH — The mother of a condemned Volusia County killer on Florida´s death row is pinning her hopes on a federal appellate decision that eliminated the death penalty for 100 inmates in Arizona, Idaho and Montana.
‘It would be great if they could stop it here,” said DeLand resident Janice Figueroa.
Her son, Bobby Raleigh, was sentenced to death in 1996 for gunning down two rival drug dealers in a DeLeon Springs trailer. Raleigh is among 15 inmates from Volusia and Flagler awaiting execution.
“I´m a mother and I don´t want him to die, and this does give me some hope,” Figueroa said.
But legal experts say she may be waiting in vain.
Tuesday´s ruling by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which threw out the death sentences because the inmates were sentenced by judges rather than juries, won´t immediately affect Florida, they say.
The decision was the result of the 2002 landmark case – Ring v Arizona, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled juries, not judges, must decide life or death for convicted killers. That ruling doesn´t apply to Florida because circuit judges have to consider the vote of a jury.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has already looked at the death penalty in Arizona and has tacitly, if not directly, put a stamp of approval on Florida´s law,” said John Tanner, state attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit, which includes Volusia and Flagler counties.
Chief Judge Julianne Piggotte of the 7th Judicial Circuit said she too believes Florida´s death penalty statutes are legally sound.
“What the 9th appellate court decided is fundamentally different from Florida´s,” Piggotte said. “The bottom line is I don´t think it´s going to have an effect here.”
Though judges have the final say on executions in Florida, they receive input from juries of 12. Typically, a split jury means life in prison, but seven or more jurors voting for death routinely convinces circuit judges to impose death. No circuit judge in Florida has overridden a jury in years, say legal experts.
Two other states, Nebraska and Colorado, also allow for judges to be the sole deciders of life or death, but federal courts that oversee them have not taken up the issue.
Opponents of the death penalty say Florida could one day be impacted by the ruling because juries do not have the final say about executions.
“I still think it´s an open question in Florida,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a national think tank based in Washington, D.C.
“Who knows, one of these (Florida) cases might make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said, adding he hopes defense attorneys will use the Arizona situation in their appeals.
The decision by the San Francisco-based 9th federal circuit has no direct bearing on Florida, which is under the 11th circuit in Atlanta.
Abe Bonovitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, acknowledged, “There’s no direct impact on Florida, but there’s no question there will be more challenges to the death penalty based on what the federal appeals court did.”
Bonovitz said broad interpretations of who decides a death sentence could ultimately lead to an overall ban by the nation’s highest court.
“It´s inevitable Florida’s death penalty and others across the country will be abolished; it´s just a question of when,” he said.
Florida is among 38 states that have the death penalty. States that prohibit it are Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The legal wrangling over the death penalty is not easy on the families of murder victims seeking justice, says Margie Van Ness, whose 16-year-old granddaughter, Michelle Van Ness, was killed in the 1992 robbery of a Taco Bell in Daytona Beach. One of her killers, Anthony Farina, remains on death row.
“I think it´s terrible, awful,” the elder Van Ness said of the death penalty challenges, “because there´s no closure for the families.”
Did You Know?
The death penalty in Florida:
- In Florida, first-degree murder, felony murder, capital drug trafficking and capital sexual battery may be punishable by death.
- The first person executed in Florida was Benjamin Donica. He was executed on June 20, 1827, for murder. The method of execution was hanging.
- The electric chair was first used in Florida on Oct. 7, 1924. Frank Johnson was executed for the crime of burglary resulting in murder.
- The death penalty was discontinued after being found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Furman v Georgia, 1972. The Supreme Court overturned its ruling in 1976, reinstating capital punishment.
- The first person executed after the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty was John Spenkelink. Spenkelink was given the electric chair in 1979 for committing murder.
- Lethal injection and the electric chair are the two forms of execution used in Florida. The prisoner is allowed to choose between either method.
- Fifty-six prisoners have been executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976.
- Florida forbids the execution of mentally handicapped prisoners.
SOURCE: Death Penalty Information Center (http:www.deathpenaltyinfo.org