TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Supreme Court is ordering a new sentence for a man involved in the deadly kidnapping of a young couple from South Beach.
The court on Thursday upheld the conviction of Joel Lebron, but tossed out his death sentence. The 39-year-old man is getting a new hearing because a jury recommended the death penalty by a 9 to 3 vote.
Authorities say 17-year-old Nelson Portobanco and 18-year-old Ana Maria Angel were walking back to their car after a date in 2002 when they were forced into a pickup by Lebron and four other men.
Authorities say Lebron stabbed Portobanco and left him for dead, but the teen survived. Angel was repeatedly raped and taken to a retaining wall beside Interstate 95 where Lebron killed her with a single gunshot.
CALGARY—A lawyer for a Canadian on death row in Montana believes it’s only a matter of time before the death penalty in much of the United States is abolished and his client will be free to return home.
Ronald Smith, 60, is originally from Red Deer, Alta., and has been on death row since 1983 for fatally shooting Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit while he was high on LSD and alcohol near East Glacier, Mont.
He originally asked for and was sentenced to death but later changed his mind and has been fighting execution ever since. He has had a number of execution dates set and overturned.
“Last year, I think we’ve only had 20-some executions and those are really isolated to only three or four states, and only three or four counties in those states.
“Most of the United States has moved beyond this and there comes a time where the courts are going to say this is in fact cruel and unusual punishment.”
Lethal injection has been the sole method of execution in Montana since 1997. It is the only state that specifies the death penalty must be accomplished by an “ultra-fast-acting” barbiturate.
Executions in Montana have been on hold since 2008 when the civil liberties union filed legal action that argued that the sedative pentobarbital, which was being proposed by the state as a replacement for the previously used sodium pentothal, could lead to an “excruciating and terrifying” death.
District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock sided with the civil liberties group and rejected an appeal by the state of Montana.
Sherlock has now sanctioned the state over its year-long delay in complying with a court order to turn over documents that could reveal if there was manipulation of an expert witness.
The group questioned whether the testimony of Roswell Evans was manipulated at trial to bolster the state’s unsuccessful claim that pentobarbital was suitable for executions.
“We’ve got some emails and we’re now looking at those and trying to ascertain what else is there,” Waterman said. “They’re going to make us unpack this whole thing piece by piece so they’re not going to go easily.
“I don’t know that it’s going to have any direct or immediate impact on the case itself.”
Waterman said it is more a case over legal fees and whether Montana acted in a vexatious manner.
As for Smith’s future, Waterman doesn’t see the current ban on executions in Montana changing any time soon. It would require a new statute being introduced and adopted by both sides of the legislature and would have to be signed by the governor.
“They didn’t change the statute during the last legislative session so the next time up is 2019. I’m not hearing anybody really being that keen about changing (it).”
The Canadian government officially intervened on Smith’s behalf last year when it asked Gov. Steve Bullock to grant him clemency.
“My hope would be ultimately that we can find clemency for Ron so that he can move back to Canada,” Waterman said.
“If the death penalty is abolished he would be eligible to be moved right away.”
Roberts was accused of planning her ex-husband’s murder with her boyfriend Nathaniel Jackson. The killing happened in the couple’s home in Howland.
Jackson was also sentenced to death.
In the past, the court said a prosecutor improperly helped prepare a sentencing motion in Roberts’ case and that a judge hadn’t fully considered factors that could argue against a death sentence.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell, writing for the majority, rejected arguments that allowing a new judge to sentence Roberts after the original judge died was unconstitutional.
Justice O’Donnell explained that Roberts helped Jackson plan Fingerhut’s murder in a series of letters and phone calls while Jackson was in prison on an unrelated charge. She actively participated with Jackson in the killing by purchasing a mask and gloves for him and allowing him into the home, evidencing prior calculation and design, O’Donnell said.
The court ruled 6-1.
The Court also pointed out that although Roberts expressed sadness for Fingerhut’s murder, she never accepted responsibility for it and denied her scheme to kill Fingerhut, “notwithstanding overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”
The Court concluded the death penalty was appropriate and proportionate to the death sentence imposed on Jackson.
The state is expected to oppose Roberts’ latest request.
A Santa Rosa Correctional Institution inmate who viciously beat and killed his cellmate in an apparent racial attack was sentenced to death Monday.
Shawn Rogers, 37, will be placed on death row for the murder and kidnapping of Ricky Dean Martin in 2012.
Rogers, who is a black man, and Martin, a white man, shared a cell in the prison. When word of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin’s death made it to the prison, Rogers carried out the racially motivated attack on Ricky Dean Martin that left him tied at the hands and feet, bruised, cut and in a coma that eventually killed him.
The court heard during Rogers’ trial that blood was smeared on the cell’s walls, and Rogers covered Martin’s body with a prayer rug before guards arrived. Martin’s face was covered with a pair of bloody boxer shorts.
A civil lawsuit filed by Martin’s family against the prison further claims Martin had filed grievances in the days before his death, saying he feared for his life and wanted to be moved from Rogers’ cell.
The same suit claims Rogers also raped Martin, though that claim was not presented by the state in Rogers’ criminal case.
Circuit Judge John Simon read a portion of Rogers’ sentencing document during court Monday, finding that the court agrees with the 12-person jury’s unanimous death recommendation.
“Mindful that a human life is at stake … the aggravating factors far outweigh the mitigating factors,” Simon said during sentencing, adding that not only did Rogers murder Martin, but he humiliated him in the process.
Rogers remained stoic as Simon read the document, not making any gestures or saying anything to his attorney, Kenneth Brooks. Rogers will join 349 other Florida prisoners on death row.
Neither Brooks nor prosecutor Jack Schlechter made any motions or arguments before Simon handed down the sentence. Both sides were allowed to present mitigating and aggravating factors in the case at a separate hearing in November, during which Simon heard about Rogers’ troubled past, with one doctor having called his upbringing a “perfect storm” for trouble.
At that same hearing, prosecutors pointed out Rogers had been functional to represent himself at trial, and was capable of premeditation because he voiced to others he would carry out an attack on a white person in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death.
In addition to the death sentence for the murder charge, Simon sentenced Rogers to life in prison for the kidnapping to inflict terror charge.
Simon told Rogers he is entitled to an appeals process and per state law his death sentence will be automatically reviewed by the Supreme Court.
The civil lawsuit is still ongoing in Federal Court.
Decades into a life prison sentence without the possibility of parole, Craig Coley continued to insist he was innocent.
The former restaurant night manager had fought unsuccessfully for years to overturn a conviction for a grisly double murder that had shocked Simi Valley in 1978.
But when police recently reopened the case, they faced a daunting obstacle. After Coley lost his final appeal years ago, a judge had issued an order permitting the destruction of the crime scene evidence.
A cold-case detective began what some expected to be a fruitless search. He tried to contact the two laboratories that had performed rudimentary tests on the crime scene evidence in the 1970s and found that both had gone out of business. A Northern California lab had acquired their contents.
That’s when the detective discovered that the evidence boxes had not been destroyed but were sitting forgotten, intact and in storage.
New tests found that a key piece of evidence used to convict Coley did not carry any of his DNA, investigators said.
“We had thought it was destroyed,” Michael Schwartz, Ventura County special assistant district attorney, said in an interview Thursday. “Whether we’d reached the same conclusion without that, I don’t know.”
Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Coley on Wednesday, writing that the DNA evidence and a painstaking re-investigation of the case proved his innocence.
Coley was 31 when he was arrested, and 70 when he was released Wednesday. A former Simi Valley police officer who was convinced of Coley’s innocence plans to help him “get acclimated to freedom” in San Diego, the officer wrote on a GoFundMe page.
It was a relative who came across the bodies of Rhonda Wicht and her son on Nov. 11, 1978. Suspicions had been raised when Wicht, 24, had not arrived for a family get-together.
Police said she had been beaten, raped and strangled with a macrame rope. Her 4-year-old son, Donald, had been smothered in his bed, presumably because he might have identified his mother’s killer.
Wicht had dated Coley for two years, but they were “in the process of breaking up,” officials said this week. Coley was held for questioning the same day.
He was ultimately charged with the two murders.
Defense attorneys criticized Simi Valley police for failing to investigate three other possible suspects, according to news accounts at the time. And the Simi Valley Mirror, a weekly tabloid, published reports asserting that investigators had focused on an innocent man.
At Coley’s first trial, jurors spent four weeks deliberating before announcing they were hopelessly deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of guilt.
A second jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder in 1980, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But last fall, Simi Valley Police Chief David Livingstone was going through old news clippings about his department and came across some from the Wicht murders. He reached out to a retired detective who had expressed concerns in the past about whether Coley was guilty. With his interest piqued, Livingstone decided to reopen the case.
Schwartz, the Ventura County prosecutor, said the recent investigation determined that the original detectives decided too quickly that Coley was their man and did not fully investigate other possible suspects — a phenomenon known in wrongful conviction cases as “tunnel vision.”
Three current and former police officers told Brown’s office that the detective at the time had “mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley,” the pardon said. The district attorney’s office has not decided if the detective committed misconduct, Schwartz said, but the investigation is continuing.
“ ‘Framed’ is a strong word,” Schwartz said. “That implies that someone knowingly blamed the wrong person. I doubt that occurred.”
Still, the re-investigation of the case turned up several inconsistencies.
An upstairs neighbor had reported seeing Coley’s truck parked outside Wicht’s apartment around the time of the murder, and saw it drive away shortly afterward. The witness noted the driver’s medium-length hair and the pinstripes along the side of the truck, which matched the description of Coley’s.
That testimony was key to Coley’s conviction, The Times reported at the time.
Exactly 39 years later, on the anniversary of Wicht’s murder, Simi Valley police returned to the apartment complex in the early morning hours and stared out the same window.
“They could see very little,” Schwartz said. “They could see vehicles, but the idea that someone could identify markings on the side of a vehicle is very unlikely. They couldn’t see inside it at all.”
Another neighbor initially told police the murder had been committed at 4:30 a.m. At that same time, Coley was carpooling home with a coworker from his restaurant job, which Schwartz described as “an airtight alibi.”
The second neighbor later testified that the murder had taken place at 5:30 a.m. and denied saying he thought it had happened an hour earlier. Years later, he began to vacillate again.
“That was an indication that the timing may not have been as firm as we thought,” Schwartz said.
Coley was a model prisoner during his 38 years and 10 months of incarceration, Brown wrote. He avoided gangs and drugs, and earned his bachelor’s degree.
“I understand that he’s not bitter, that he has a positive attitude, which I think is quite remarkable,” Schwartz said. “This whole case is tragic. The murder was tragic, and this is a waste of a person’s life.”
From his small cell on California’s death row, Scott Pinholster swore he could prove his innocence. The proof, he said, was in the dried blood on a work boot and a pink towel recovered from his home years ago.
The condemned inmate insisted that modern DNA testing — nonexistent when he was convicted of a double murder in 1984 — would show the blood belonged to him, not the victims, as the prosecution argued at his trial.
But a recent search for the items has led to a disturbing discovery that could throw the case into jeopardy: The Los Angeles County courts mistakenly destroyed the evidence.
A judge must now determine what, if anything, should be done to remedy the high-stakes error.
Pinholster’s attorney has asked for a hearing on how the destruction happened and says he will eventually ask for a new trial. Prosecutors, however, argue that a killer’s life shouldn’t be spared simply because of an innocent mistake by court staff.
One of the jurors who voted to send Pinholster to death row more than three decades ago was shocked to hear that the man convicted of fatally stabbing and beating two men might get a second chance.
“Oh my God!” said the juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, when recently contacted by The Times. “He’s liable to get off then?”
Pinholster is one of 744 people awaiting execution in California — the largest death row population in the country. Although the state hasn’t put anyone to death since 2006, that could soon change, as voters passed a measure last year to speed up the process. Of the state’s condemned inmates, about 20 have exhausted their appeals, putting them at the front of the line. Among them is Pinholster.
California law requires that courts keep evidence until after a death row inmate is executed or dies behind bars — a safeguard put in place to preserve evidence for future testing. Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the court’s procedure for destroying evidence, which was updated last year, now requires that staff first contact California’s Supreme Court to confirm a death row inmate has died. The court, Hearn said, began a review of its procedure before learning of Pinholster’s case.
Hearn said Pinholster, 58, is the only known example of evidence destruction in a case of a living death row inmate convicted in L.A. County. But a small number of cases around the country have raised similar legal problems.
On the eve of an execution in 2005, Virginia’s governor reduced a condemned death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole after learning that a court clerk had destroyed evidence in his murder case despite being warned by subordinates not to do so. Two years later, a man on death row in Oklahoma was released from prison after a judge ruled that a police lab analyst had intentionally destroyed hair evidence that could have pointed to the inmate’s innocence.
Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor who directs the school’s clinic that defends condemned inmates facing execution, said destruction of physical evidence cripples the ability to examine an inmate’s innocence claim.
“If the very evidence you need is gone … how do you make justice happen for these individuals?” she said, describing the scenario as “terribly, terribly devastating.”
The importance of such tests was highlighted last month when Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned a prisoner who spent 39 years behind bars for the 1978 killing of a young woman and her 4-year-old son in Simi Valley. After the prisoner, Craig Coley, exhausted his appeals years ago, a judge authorized the destruction of the crime-scene evidence. But a cold-case detective recently found the evidence and when tested, it helped clear Coley of the murders.
For Pinholster, prosecutors point to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it difficult for prisoners to reverse convictions or reduce sentences unless they can show that evidence was destroyed in “bad faith.” In Pinholster’s case, prosecutors argue, the destruction was the result of “at most negligence, incompetency, recklessness,” but not “bad faith.”
At his trial, a prosecutor argued that the blood on the boot and towel found in the defendant’s Van Nuys apartment belonged to at least one of the two victims — Thomas Johnson, 25, and Robert Beckett, 29. The men were stabbed and beaten to death at the Tarzana home of a marijuana dealer on Jan. 9, 1982.
The state’s key witness, Art Corona, told police that he, Pinholster and a third man, Paul Brown, were all armed with buck knives when they barreled into the home looking to steal drugs and cash. Minutes later, Corona said, the two victims showed up. Pinholster attacked the men with a knife, his fists and his feet, Corona said, adding that Brown also stabbed one of the men.
Their loot: $23 and a quarter-ounce of pot.
Pinholster said he had stolen drugs from the home a few hours before the killings but never harmed anyone. When he took the stand, he seemed to revel in his criminal record. Asked for his occupation, he smirked and responded, “a crook,” according to court documents. He also boasted to jurors of having committed hundreds of robberies, but insisted he’d always carried guns, not knives.
A Sheriff’s Department criminalist told jurors that he’d tested the right work boot and towel collected from Pinholster’s home and found they came back positive for human blood, but technology at the time couldn’t narrow down whose blood it was. The prosecutor suggested that Pinholster had stepped in a pool of blood at the Tarzana home and used the towel to wipe off the murder weapon.
Neither Pinholster nor his attorney argued at trial that the blood was from him — an omission the district attorney’s office said undercuts his current claim. His new attorney said Pinholster was never asked during the trial who the blood belonged to.
Contacted recently, another juror who asked to be identified only as a 76-year-old woman said she was confident in the verdict.
“He was absolutely guilty,” she said. “No question.”
Even after three decades, she said, she can conjure a haunting memory of an image painted at trial by the prosecutor — Pinholster, wearing boots, kicking in the skull of one of the victims.
After his conviction, state courts rejected appeals from Pinholster, but a federal judge overturned the death sentence in 2003, ruling that his trial counsel had failed to tell jurors about the extent of Pinholster’s mental health problems. In 2011, however, the U.S. Supreme Court restored Pinholster’s death sentence.
“He’s been very discouraged,” said Sean Kennedy, Pinholster’s current lawyer.
But months after having his death penalty restored, the inmate got good news. A judge had finally approved his request to have DNA testing done on the towel and boot. Pinholster contends that the bloodstains came from his repeated intravenous use of heroin.
A Los Angeles police officer was assigned to scour an LAPD storage room for the items in case the court had returned them after the trial. The search came up empty, so officers checked inside another police storage facility. Still nothing. As the hunt stretched into a fourth year, Kennedy grew suspicious. Finally, a prosecutor stepped in to help speed up the process.
“And that,” Kennedy said, with a shake of his head, “is when they finally fessed up.”
Court documents from January 1998 show that People vs. Pinholster was mistakenly listed among more than a dozen cases deemed eligible for evidence destruction. The trial exhibits, records show, were destroyed that summer. Two top Los Angeles County Superior Court officials signed the destruction order — Judge John Reid and Ty Colgrove, an administrator who helped run the court’s criminal operations. Both men have since retired.
Reached for comment, Colgrove said he didn’t recall the case, as he’d signed hundreds of destruction orders over the years, but added that he relied on lower-level employees to properly sort through the cases.
Hearn, the court spokeswoman, said Reid could not comment, as he still sometimes fills in on the bench. In a recently signed declaration, Reid wrote that if he’d known the evidence from a capital case was going to be destroyed, he “would not have signed the order.”
Kennedy, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School whose work on Pinholster’s case carried over from his days as the federal public defender for the Central District of California, bristled at the rationale.
“It’s almost like the judiciary is facilitating wrongful executions,” he said.
Life on death row has worn on Pinholster. Last year, as California voters weighed two options — speeding up executions or banning the death penalty — Pinholster was quoted in a Times article, expressing apathy.
“After 30 years,” he said, “you don’t care one way or the other.”
But there’s still some hope for his exoneration, Kennedy said, pointing to trial exhibit 29 — a pair of bloodstained jeans also recovered from Pinholster’s home years ago. While court employees have said they presume the jeans are lost or destroyed, they haven’t found any documents showing they were, in fact, discarded.
Kennedy has asked for a special hearing so he can question the court officials who approved the destruction. A judge is expected to rule on that request early next year.
For Michael Kumar, the former marijuana dealer who lived at the home where the killings took place, the mention of Pinholster brings a rush of memories. Although he’d been out of town the weekend of the murders, the pain is still raw over the loss of Johnson, his best friend — a gentle giant who loved to play classical piano. When asked about the possibility of a new trial, Kumar sighed.
“It’s preposterous to me…. It’s completely a joke if this guy says he’s innocent,” said Kumar, 58, who now sells parts for and restores classic cars. “I’m not going to say he doesn’t have the right, because I’m not sure what the technicalities are, but it’s just that — a technicality.”
ST. LOUIS — A longtime Missouri death row inmate whose conviction in the 1991 rape and killing of two sisters was overturned has pleaded guilty to murdering them and been re-sentenced to life behind bars.
Reginald Clemons, who spent 22 years on death row, pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of second-degree murder and other crimes. His plea agreement calls for him to serve five consecutive life sentences.
The Missouri Supreme Court in 2015 dismissed Clemons’ conviction after finding that prosecutors suppressed evidence that police had beaten a confession out of him.
Clemons was among four men convicted in the deaths of 20-year-old Julie Kerry and her 19-year-old sister, Robin. Authorities say the sisters were raped and shoved off the old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis.
JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated the death sentence of an inmate convicted of killing a prison guard.
Justices also ordered a state circuit court judge to hold another hearing on the mental capacity of Willie C. Russell , who came within hours of being executed more than two decades ago.
Russell, now 57, was convicted in the 1989 killing of Argentra Cotton, a guard at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where Russell was imprisoned for armed robbery, escape and kidnapping convictions in Hinds County.
A federal appeals court blocked the execution in January 1997 after Russell claimed he didn’t have a lawyer to appeal his death sentence. Russell later claimed he was intellectually disabled and could not be executed.
Sunflower County Circuit Judge Betty W. Sanders agreed and overturned the death sentence, and Russell remained in prison. On Thursday, justices said Sanders should have heard more testimony.
A majority of justices wrote that Russell underwent psychological testing in 2006 in an aggravated assault case, but he never underwent an assessment of intellectual disability.
In 2014, Sanders denied the state’s request for Russell to be evaluated for intellectual disability, saying the previous testing was sufficient. Five of the nine justices said Thursday that the judge conducted a “one-sided” hearing about Russell’s mental capacity before she overturned his death sentence.
However, four justices wrote a dissent, saying Russell had undergone enough psychological testing in 2006, and results of those tests could be used to determine whether he has an intellectual disability.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to execute a person who has intellectual disabilities.
Sanders is retired from the bench. A majority of justices said Thursday that an expert chosen by the state must be allowed to evaluate Russell before a circuit judge holds new hearing about his mental capacity.
He did not. He didn’t pull a trigger, didn’t wield a knife, didn’t take any direct action that caused another person’s death.
But twice now, Wood, 44, has come within only a few days of being executed by the state of Texas. He was convicted under Texas’ felony murder statute, informally called the “law of parties,” after he waited outside in a truck while an accomplice robbed a Kerrville convenience store in 1996 — and ended up killing a clerk named Kriss Keeran.
A growing bipartisan chorus agrees that, while Wood was complicit in a crime, he does not belong on death row.
One of those voices belongs to the prosecutor who put him there. Last week, The Texas Tribune reported that Kerr County District Attorney Lucy Wilkehas joined a long list of Texas officials who want to see Wood’s death sentence reduced to life in prison.
In a letter co-signed by the Kerrville police chief and the district judge overseeing Wood’s appeal, Wilke — a young, relatively inexperienced prosecutor at the time of Wood’s 1998 trial — says life imprisonment is the appropriate punishment in this case.
Wilke’s change of heart is not based solely on misgivings over the law of parties used in Texas murder trials. She has also expressed concern over testimony supplied by forensic psychiatrist James Grigson — “Dr. Death” — whose methods and credentials were later called into question.
But her letter urging the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that Gov. Greg Abbott reduce Wood’s sentence to life in prison specifies that “the offender was not actually the person who shot the victim” as a factor in her request.Wilke’s letter reflects a fair and candid evolution of thought about appropriate use of the death penalty in Texas, an evolution she shares with many others.
Honest disagreement remains over capital punishment in this state. This editorial board has urged its discontinuance; many others believe just as strongly that it should be preserved.
But all thoughtful people can agree that the death penalty, if used, should be applied carefully, sparingly, and reserved for the “worst of the worst” offenders — a standard that Wood, while culpable, does not meet.
“At the time of the jury trial in this case, I was a newly licensed attorney with 13 months of experience … the decision to seek the death penalty was mine,” Wilke wrote. “Again, I now respectfully request that this offender’s death sentence be commuted to a capital murder life sentence.”
Unfortunately, in spite of strong bipartisan efforts, state lawmakers passedon an opportunity to reform the Texas statute regarding the law of parties’ use in capital cases during their most recent session. It’s an issue that must be revisited.
In the meantime, a growing number of voices that bridge the political spectrum is calling on Abbott to intervene in this case.
Abbott, sensitive to protecting his red-state bona fides, has not reduced a capital sentence to life since he took office in 2015. But the case of Jeff Wood would be a sensible and honorable place to start.