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Florida prosecutors begin dealing with unanimous jury requirement for death sentences

Florida prosecutors begin dealing with unanimous jury requirement for death sentences

For decades Florida has had a death penalty system that allows prosecutors secure a death sentence with a simple majority, seven of 12 jurors, in favor.

No longer. In the past 18 months the U.S. Supreme Court has thrown out the state’s death penalty procedures and the Florida Supreme Court has ruledthat no one can be put on Death Row without the jury unanimously agreeing on at least one aggravating factor that justifies death. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court ended the entire situation when it refused to consider an appeal of the Florida Supreme Court decision.

An indication of how that will change the death penalty in Florida was on display last month in a Bradenton courtroom when jurors recommended the death penalty by a 7–5 vote for Andres “Andy” Avalos Jr, who was convicted of the first-degree murders of Denise Potter and James “Tripp” Battle III and the second-degree murder of his wife, Amber Avalos.

Two years ago that vote would have been enough to put Avalos on Death Row. Now, the death penalty is off the table. He will get sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

12th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky, who prosecuted Avalos, saidseeking death was much harder now.

Florida has one of the largest death rows in America, but it has been shrinking this year as the Florida Supreme Court has thrown out the death sentences of 16 people because their death sentences were not unanimous. The total number of people on Death Row has dropped from just under 400 to 363, as of June 19.

Florida’s 20 elected prosecutors will have to decide whether to seek death again in cases where they couldn’t get unanimous jury support the first time. But prosecutors have only themselves to blame, they fought efforts to amend this law for years, even after the Florida Supreme Court encouraged the State Legislature to change the law to require juror unanimity in sentencing someone to death.

“The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime,” said Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law. “The prosecutors who relentlessly pursued death sentences despite being repeatedly placed on notice that the state’s death penalty regime was constitutionally defective should be held accountable for the emotional and financial costs they have imposed on victims’ families and on taxpayers.”

About 75 percent of the people on Death Row in Florida were put there with at least one juror dissenting.

Alabama is now the only state in the country that allows someone to be sentenced to death without the unanimous consent of a jury.

Michigan man’s exoneration after decades in prison shows importance of holding prosecutors accountable

Michigan man’s exoneration after decades in prison shows importance of holding prosecutors accountable

Ledura Watkins spent 41 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

And the only evidence prosecutors had against Watkins in the early 1970’s was a single hair.

Earlier this week prosecutors agreed that single hair did not belong to Watkins, 61, and he’s a free man for the first time since he was a teenager.

According to the Associated Press, “Watkins was 20 years old when he was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1975 shooting death of 25-year-old Yvette Ingram during a robbery at her home. Police lab analysts tied Watkins to the crime based on a single hair found at the scene, according to the Innocence Project at the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School, which took up Watkins’ case and asked a court in January to set aside the conviction.”

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s office agreed that the evidence was flawed under the FBI’s current standard for hair comparison, and agreed to his release.

Watkins will be the longest serving wrongly convicted person in the United States to be determined innocent, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

And while the story had a happy ending, Watkins lost over 40 years of his life in prison on a single hair. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy deserves credit for not trying to do everything to keep Watkins locked up, but the same cannot be said for the prosecutors 40 years ago who felt justified in having Watkins locked up on such flimsy evidence.

But William Cahalan, who was the elected prosecutor in the 1970’s, died in 1990. No one will answer for this grave injustice.

And that’s why our society needs to do a better job of holding prosecutors accountable. It’s comforting to think the authorities know what they’re doing, but Ledura Watkins can tell you that’s not always the case.

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Orleans district attorney Leon Cannizzaro sought to jail domestic violence victim

Orleans district attorney Leon Cannizzaro sought to jail domestic violence victim

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro sought to jail a victim of domestic violence after she refused to to to respond to a fake subpoena his office sent her demanding that she meet with them.

The woman was never locked up. A judge originally issued an arrest warrant but then withdrew it after Cannizzaro dropped the charges against the woman’s ex-boyfriend. But Cannizzaro’s behavior is generating attention because of his tendency to issue these “fake subpoenas” to get witnesses in criminal cases to talk to his office.

Protesters in New Orleans have been calling for Cannizzaro’s recall.

According to the Lens, a non-profit news sight, prosecutors sought to jail the woman because she was not cooperating with their investigation and not coming to their office when she was sent a “subpoena.”

The documents had the word “subpoena” at the top of the page even though it had not been signed by a judge, meaning that disobeying would not be a criminal offense. The text said in all capital letters “SUBPOENA: A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE.”

Cannizzaro defended his behavior, saying that the woman had gone to police twice but then stopped speaking to the authorities. But Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman told the Lens that obtaining an arrest warrant based on a fake subpoena “raises the level of misconduct.”

Legal experts questioned whether it was legal to send any of the fake subpoenas out, although news reports said the office had been doing it for years. It also came out that Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick has sent out similar “subpoenas and the office of North Shore District Attorney Warren Montgomery sent out documents that looked like subpoenas but didn’t actually use that word.

“There’s no question this is improper,” said Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, a former prosecutor in New York City, in an interview with The Lens. “Clearly, it’s unethical because the prosecutor is engaging in fraudulent conduct.”

Defense attorney and New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams said if a defense attorney had done something similar, “I guarantee you this DA would try to prosecute that defense attorney.”

After the reports surfaced a spokesman for Cannizzaro said the process would be discontinued and replaced with documents that said “notice to appear.” Connick and Montgomery’s office also said the process would end.

But even if Cannizzaro is not recalled, the scandal has hurt him. He was blasted locally with an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that called the behavior “especially egregious.”

And Radley Balko of the Washington Post also called Cannizzaro out, saying his office had hit “rock bottom.”

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