ORLANDO — Unlike most other states with capital punishment, Florida juries don’t have the last word in trials when it comes to capital punishment.
Instead, jurors in this state render what are called advisory decisions over whether certain convicted murderers should be sentenced to death. Judges are instructed to give jury recommendations great weight, but judges – not juries –ultimately decide what punishment to impose.
Only two other states with the death penalty – Alabama and Delaware –permit judges to override jury decisions.
Last week, jury candidates in the Dontae Morris case were told they were faced with a serious possibility – recommending another human being be put to death. But they also were told the ultimate decision will rest with Circuit Judge William Fuente.
Morris is scheduled to go on trial Tuesday on charges he murdered Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. He is already serving a life sentence for the murder of Rodney Jones and faces two more murder trials after this.
Because of extensive pretrial publicity, Fuente ruled a fair jury could not be found in Hillsborough County, and so jurors are being shuttled in to Tampa from Orange County.
One jury candidate in Orlando wanted more information last week about how the system actually works.
Do judges, he wanted to know, actually overrule jury decisions on capital punishment?
“Are there cases where the judge has done both – change the death recommendation to life and change the life recommendation to death?” he asked.
“The statute says yes, it can cut both ways,” Fuente said.
While the judge’s answer may have been accurate, it was not complete.
Historically, judges in Florida have overridden jury recommendations for both life and death sentences, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Between 1972 and early 1992, Florida trial judges imposed death sentences in 134 cases where the jury had recommended life, and overrode 51 death recommendations to impose life, Dieter said.
But Professor Stephen Harper, who supervises the death penalty clinic at Florida International University Law School, said no judge in Florida has overturned a jury’s recommendation for a life sentence since 1999 as a result of a state Supreme Court decision that severely limited judges’ ability to do so. That ruling declared, “In order to sustain a sentence of death following a jury recommendation of life, the facts suggesting a sentence of death should be so clear and convincing that virtually no reasonable person could differ.”
The state Legislature tried in 1995 to overturn that restriction, known as the Tedder standard, but Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed the bill, according to the Michigan State Law Review.
Judges have, however, imposed life sentences when juries recommended death.
This happened at least 21 times in Florida between 1999 and 2011, according to data in the Michigan State Law Review cited by Harper.
The most recent case in the Tampa Bay area, according to the Michigan State Law Review article, was Timothy Permanter, who was convicted in the 2003 murder of his girlfriend, Karen Pannell. Circuit Judge R. Timothy Peters sentenced Permanter to life in prison in October 2008 after a divided jury recommended a death sentence.
The law review said the last time it happened in Hillsborough County was in 2003 when Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced Troy Lee Green to life for the murder of DeCarla Dixon, a disabled woman who was stabbed at least 39 times. A divided jury had recommended a death sentence for Green.
In Padgett’s sentencing order, he ruled that Dixon’s death was not “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.
“This court has handled many cases involving killing by stabbing,” wrote Padgett, who had been a judge for 30 years. “In some the state sought the death penalty, in some it did not. But all of these cases involved multiple wounds. That is the nature of killing by stabbing.”
Padgett’s ruling was at least the third time he disregarded a jury’s recommendation that a killer be executed, prosecutors said at the time. Padgett has since retired.
One such case involved a Polk County killer represented by Byron Hileman, one of Dontae Morris’ lawyers. In 2009, a Polk County jury voted 7-5 to recommend a death sentence for Eric Rodriguez in the murder of former cheerleader Angelia Headrick, according to news reports. Hileman said the prosecution, which had sought a death sentence, later agreed with the defense that a life sentence was warranted, and the judge sentenced Rodriguez to life.