Death Penalty Litigation

In 2002, Assistant Public Defender Stephen Harper, on a leave of absence, served as the coordinator of the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative, a coalition of organizations (including the American Bar Association) whose sole purpose was to eliminate capital punishment for 16- and 17-year-old offenders. That work involved coordinating state legislative efforts, consulting on actual cases, securing the involvement of more organizations and entities (e.g. the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the European Union, and the Carter Center), and working with the press.

He coordinated the drafting and filing of amicus briefs in the case of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) which held that the eighth and fourteenth amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on persons who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. He also served as an advisor to counsel for Simmons.

We joined other capital defenders, post-conviction lawyers and advocates for persons with intellectual disabilities in helping to shape the rules governing claims of intellectual disability in capital cases. In 2001, the Florida Legislature banned the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities. The following year, the United States Supreme Court declared the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities to be unconstitutional in Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002). We joined other advocates in arguing that the question of whether a defendant had intellectual disabilities should be determined before trial, rather than after trial as required by the legislature.

This office argued that postponing this determination until after a capital trial would present a grave risk that innocent persons with intellectual disabilities would plead guilty to escape the death penalty. Pretrial determinations would also save the public the expense of preparing and trying a capital case where the defendant is ineligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court of Florida ultimately accepted these arguments and promulgated rules providing for a pretrial hearing to determine intellectual disabilities.

We joined a coalition of public defenders and other death penalty opponents to successfully challenge Florida’s Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000 (DPRA). The DPRA was an ill-considered attempt to fast-track death penalty appeals by creating a “dual track” system, whereby the direct appeal and post-conviction proceedings would take place at the same time.

This would have resulted in wasteful and unnecessary post-conviction actions in cases that were reversed on direct appeal. The legislation also would have forced post-conviction counsel to go forward without access to vital public records, and would have prevented counsel from presenting claims that did not become ripe until later in the review process. The Supreme Court of Florida found the DPRA to be unconstitutional, in Allen v. Butterworth, 756 So. 2d 52 (Fla. 2000), on the basis that it violated separation of powers.

We assisted the Wrongful Conviction seminar run by Professor Jonathon Simon then at the University of Miami Law School in 1993. Working under a very short statutory deadline allowing for DNA post-conviction testing, we screened and reviewed many closed appellate cases for potential DNA issues that would then be acted upon by Nova University’s Innocence Project.

In addition to institutional challenges, we’ve had a number of successes challenging the death penalty in individual cases, in both state and federal courts.

In Garcia v. State, 816 So. 2d 554 (Fla. 2002), numerous errors required reversal of murder convictions and the death penalty, including: refusal to allow the defendant to impeach a key state witness with unsworn inconsistent statements; refusal to allow, in the guilt and penalty phases, the accomplice’s testimony, at his separate trial, that he alone had committed the murders; and allowing bad character testimony from a witness that he did not trust the defendant and did not want to be alone with him.

In Ramirez v. State, 810 So. 2d 836 (Fla. 2001), a police crime technician was allowed to testify that his newly formulated knife mark identification procedure was infallible and enabled him to identify the murder weapon, to the exclusion of every other knife in the world. In ordering a new trial, the court called the knife mark identification procedure “a classic example of the kind of novel ‘scientific’ evidence that Frye was intended to banish – i.e., a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible. The potential for error or fabrication in this procedure is inestimable. In order to preserve the integrity of the criminal justice system in Florida, particularly in the face of rising nationwide criticism of forensic evidence in general, our state courts – both trial and appellate – must apply the Frye test in a prudent manner to cull scientific fiction and junk science from fact.” Id. at 853.

In Johnson v. State, 750 So. 2d 22 (Fla. 1999), the defendant and a codefendant were tried together before one jury. When the codefendant was presenting mitigating evidence during the trial’s penalty phase, Johnson and his counsel were excused. The codefendant’s mitigating evidence included claims that Johnson had manipulated him. The Florida Supreme Court held that the codefendant’s presentation of mitigating evidence was a critical stage of Johnson’s penalty phase hearing, so his absence without a knowing and voluntary waiver required a new sentencing hearing. On remand, Johnson received a life sentence.

In Walker v. State, 707 So. 2d 300 (Fla. 1997), the trial court erred in rejecting the nonstatutory mitigator of Walker’s abusive childhood and in failing to consider numerous nonstatutory “positive” mitigators that Walker was honorably discharged from the military; was gainfully employed; had family members who testified to his good qualities; and was a deacon in his church. “This Court has repeatedly held that all mitigating evidence, found anywhere in the record, must be considered and weighed by the trial court in its determination of whether to impose a sentence of death.” The Florida Supreme Court remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing at which our attorneys secured the defendant a life sentence.

In Manso v. State, 704 So. 2d 516 (Fla. 1997), the defendant, while testifying in the penalty phase, threw a microphone at the prosecutor, then got down on the floor and began screaming and shaking violently. Two psychologists evaluated him and recommended that he be involuntarily hospitalized for observation. The trial judge, though, refused to grant a continuance to determine Manso’s competency. The Florida Supreme Court reversed the death sentence as the judge abused her discretion in failing to grant a continuance so that Manso could be observed in a hospital setting.

In King v. State, 623 So. 2d 486 (Fla. 1993), on direct appeal of a death sentence, the Florida Supreme Court reversed for a new sentencing hearing because during his penalty phase closing argument, the prosecutor gave a dissertation on evil, admonishing the jurors that if they recommended life imprisonment instead of death, they would be “cooperating with evil and would themselves be involved in evil just like” the defendant.

In Brown v. State, 521 So. 2d 110 (Fla. 1988), an erroneous ruling by the trial judge terminating the penalty phase trial and sentencing the defendant to life imprisonment acted as an acquittal of the death penalty. The State could not successfully challenge the erroneous ruling because double jeopardy prevented a retrial on the death penalty.

In Jackson v. Dugger, 837 F. 2d 1469 (11th Cir. 1988), the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing, where the jury was instructed that death was presumed to be the proper sentence when aggravating circumstances were found, unless they are overridden by mitigating circumstances. The federal circuit court held that this instruction denied the defendant the individualized sentencing determination required by the Eighth Amendment.

In Hargrave v. Dugger, 832 F.2d 1528 (11th Cir. 1987), the Eleventh Circuit vacated the death sentence as the jury was not permitted to consider nonstatutory mitigating circumstances.

In Perri v. State, 441 So. 2d 606 (Fla. 1983), the death sentence was reversed where the trial court denied the defense request for a psychiatric evaluation prior to the penalty hearing. Although the defense of insanity was not raised, defendant’s testimony before the hearing that he had been in mental institutions should have been enough to trigger an investigation as to whether the mental condition of the defendant interfered with, but did not obviate, his knowledge of right and wrong. A person who is legally sane may still have an impaired mental state that can form the basis for a jury recommendation of life.

In Scott v. State, 420 So. 2d 595 (Fla. 1982), a murder conviction and sentence of death were vacated because the trial court did not grant a psychiatric evaluation of the defendant or order a competency hearing prior to trial, even though there was ample evidence that the defendant might have been incompetent and unable to assist his counsel in the preparation of a defense.

In Menendez v. State, 419 So. 2d 312 (Fla. 1982) (Menendez II), a death sentence was not appropriate where murder was not premeditated, was not done execution-style, and where the defendant had no significant criminal history.

In Sturdivan v. State, 419 So. 2d 300 (Fla. 1982), the trial court’s refusal to instruct on lesser included offenses required a new trial.

InBryant v. State, 412 So. 2d 347 (Fla. 1982), the murder conviction and sentence of death were reversed because the trial court refused to instruct the jury on “independent act” under the felony-murder doctrine, where there was evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the victim’s death resulted from the accomplice’s act of committing sexual battery after defendant withdrew from the common robbery design.

In Valle v. State, 394 So. 2d 1004 (Fla. 1981), the conviction and death sentence for murder of a police officer had to be vacated because the trial judge required the defendant to go to trial within 24 days of his arraignment, thus resulting in the denial of the effective assistance of counsel.

In Brown v. State, 367 So. 2d 616 (Fla. 1979), on direct appeal of a death sentence, the Florida Supreme Court vacated the death sentence and remanded for imposition of a life sentence where the jury had recommended life imprisonment. We continued to pursue relief for our client in federal court. In Brown v. Dugger, 831 F. 2d 1547 (11th Cir. 1987), habeas corpus relief was granted by the federal district court and affirmed by the federal court of appeals because Brown was denied the right to confront witnesses against him when a detective was allowed to testify about hearsay statements made by an accomplice, and the prosecutor, in closing argument, commented on Brown’s silence, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

In Menendez v. State, 368 So. 2d 1278 (Fla. 1979) (Menendez I), the death sentence was vacated and the case was remanded for another sentencing hearing where the trial judge improperly considered nonstatutory aggravating factors.

In Riley v. State, 366 So. 2d 19 (Fla. 1978), the death sentence was vacated and the case remanded for another sentencing hearing where the trial judge had improperly considered nonstatutory aggravating factors, and found statutory aggravating factors unsupported by the evidence.