Casey Anthony Case: The Defense Requests that the Death Penalty be Taken Off the Table and Here's My Response to Your Questions, as Casey Anthony's Prior Death Penalty Attorney.

Today, the news media is reporting that defense counsel for Casey Anthony (Prof. Andrea Lyon, Jose Baez) have filed a motion with the court challenging the State of Florida's decision to seek the death penalty. 

I am proactiving providing my response to the questions that I have received already and assumedly will continue to receive regarding this issue. 

First, I am not acting as counsel for Ms. Anthony any longer and I'm not privy to the decision-making process of her defense team

Second, the legal focus of the motion is upon "aggravating circumstances" as they are defined here in Florida.  For the legal details on aggravating circumstances as well as mitigating factors under Florida law, please read my earlier articles here on the blog:

1.  Discussion of Aggravating Circumstances

2.  Discussion of Mitigating Factors

3.  Series entitled "Filicide is Different"

For my prior posts on this blog regarding the Casey Anthony case, please review:

1.  When I was on Nancy Grace last week....

2.  Another lesson from the Casey Anthony case....

3.  Five questions to ask yourself about the Casey Anthony case....

4.  Please check out my op-ed piece in the Orlando Sentinel...

Will the Jurors Decide that Michael King Should Die? Will They Decide Before 5 Today?

As these words are being typed, the jurors over in Sarasota, Florida, are deciding whether or not Michael King should die.

Who is Michael King? The Mitigating Circumstances

Michael King has just been convicted of the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Denise Lee.  He is 38 years old.  The prosecution does not contest that King has been a good father to his 13-year-old son and he has a low IQ.   Or that King was devoted to his girlfriend of many years, that he has been a stellar prisoner,  has no prior record of crime, and doesn't drink or do drugs.   Plus, King suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child (it happened during a sledding accident) which caused permanent damage.

Victim of Traumatic Brain Injury

Just yesterday, the hearing on whether or not Michael King is legally competent, due to that brain injury, concluded after the testimony of mental health experts and family witnesses of his behavior over the years, as well as the accident itself.  There was evidence that King complained for years of always having a "buzzing" in his head and that he periodically suffered from hallucinations.  One brother described how Michael would see ghosts, and that he would shoot at them.   The judge ruled that King was competent for trial, and the penalty phase of the case resumed. 

The Aggravating Factors

These are the mitigating circumstances that his defense attorney has argued to the jury, asking them to keep emotion out of the jury room as they decide between life and death.   Michael King will live the rest of his life behind bars, and this is justice, she argued.

The State's attorney brought forth aggravating factors:  (1) King committed the murder after he already kidnapped and raped Ms. Lee; (2) the killing itself was heinous, atrotious, or cruel; (3) he killed his victim in an attempt to escape arrest for the kidnapping and rape;  and (4) the killing was cold, premeditated, and calculated.

The jury will return with a recommendation for the judge; it need not be based upon an unanimous vote.  Then the judge, Sarasota Circuit Court Judge Deno Economou, will decide whether or not Michael King will be sentenced to die. 

This is the same jury that took only two hours to decide Michael King was guilty of the murder of Denise Lee.  

The Underlying Crime - The Murder of Denise Lee

Denise Lee and Michael King were strangers.  Lee, the daughter of a detective for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Department and the mother of two small children, was taken from her home one afternoon and driven to King's residence where she was raped, shot, and later buried in a ditch.   During the drive between her home and his, Lee called 911 using King's cellphone and her six minute call was played to the jury.  Another 911 call, by a witness who followed the Camaro but lost it before it arrived at King's home, was also played.  A third 911 call was also placed by a family member of Michael King's, who saw the victim in the Camaro when King stopped by his home.   The failure of these 911 calls has led to legislation and continued efforts for legal change by the victim's family.

It is Friday afternoon.  It only took this jury two hours to decide on the guilt of Michael King.  Many would argue that there will be a swift recommendation vote, and the life of Michael King will be placed in the hands of Judge Economou before sunset.   We'll know soon enough.

This week's Justin Heyne Case Demonstrates the Two Trials Involved in a Death Penalty Case

Yesterday, the jury came back in the murder trial of Justin Heyne.  The 12 jurors found Heyne guilty of the March 2006 murder of his roommates, Sarah Buckowski and Benjamin Hamilton and their 5-year-old daughter, Ivory. 

The verdict was read to a packed courtroom.  Mr. Heyne stood to hear his fate in a dark blue suit, his defense attorney at his side.  His family and the families of the victims all sat in the pews, witnessing the court clerk reading the jury's decision for each of the three crimes -- everyone hearing "guilty"  three times over.

That was the end of the first trial.

In every death penalty case, there are two trials.  Justin Heyne would have had nothing more to try if the jury had found him innocent.  However, because three guilty verdicts were read, there is now the matter of sentencing.  And with that, a sentencing trial to determine what a fair sentence should be.

The first trial took one week.  (It already took a week to pick the jury.)  Now, on Wednesday morning, that same jury resumes its position in the jury box of a Brevard County courtroom as the second trial begins.

The sentencing trial (the "penalty phase")

In the sentencing trial, more documentary evidence and witness testimony will be provided to the jury.  Aggravating factors and mitigating circumstances will be addressed, as the defense attorneys argue that Heyne should not die by lethal injection but instead serve three mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole. 

Whether the State of Florida should kill Justin Heyne is being decided in this second trial.

And, the jury doesn't decide this all alone.  The twelve jurors vote on a "recommendation" (it doesn't have to be unanimous) and this recommendation is taken into consideration by the trial court judge.  It is the judge who makes the ultimate decision. 

As we've discussed earlier, the Florida statutes list the aggravating factors that the prosecutor can prove with proper evidence to argue for capital punishment.  Florida law also lists the mitigating factors that the defense can use to fight for Heyne to live. 

The Grandmother Doesn't Want the Death Penalty

Something the jury may not hear (unless the defense provides it to them) is the position of Juanita Perez, the mother of Benjamin Hamilton and grandmother of  Ivory.  Perez doesn't want Heyne to die.

In fact, for many months now, Juanita Perez pushed the State Attorney to accept Heyne's offer to plead guilty to all three murders in exchange for three life sentences.   Why?  Juanita Perez understands the lengthy appellate process that will insue after the sentencing phase is completed in this case, and she doesn't want her family to have to live through those years and years of appeals. 

However, this mitigating factor -- the desires of the victims' mother and grandmother for closure -- has been ignored by the State, and they're fighting for Justin Heyne to die.   Sure, the prosecutor is using the standard response: the crime was heinous (a child was killed), other relatives aren't as strident as Mrs. Perez here, etc., etc.

Still, one has to wonder why the prosecutors are pushing for death when Ivory's own grandmother isn't wanting Justin to die for Ivory's murder.  It's up to the defense team to bring this very important circumstance to bear in the sentencing determination.   Just one more example of how important every due process step of a death penalty case can be, and how important qualified death penalty counsel are in a capital punishment case. 

In Depth Look: Death in Florida

At the outset, death is different.

In State v. Dixon, 283 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 1973), the Supreme Court of Florida upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty statute. The court found that "death is unique punishment in its finality and in its total rejection of the possibility of rehabilitation." As such, the court confirmed that it was the intent of the legislature to reserve application of the death penalty "only to the most aggravated and least mitigated of the most serious crime." Accordingly, the Florida Legislature put into place a special process with safeguards so that the death penalty is applied properly after conviction of a capital crime.

Multi-Step Process Between Conviction and Imposition of the Death Penalty

A separate multi-step process exists between conviction and the imposition of the death penalty. After a defendant is found guilty of a capital offense subject to the death penalty, the first step is a second trial to determine whether death will be imposed. At this trial, the jury hears evidence concerning aggravators, circumstances that weigh toward death, and mitigators, which weigh in favor of mercy.

The defense and prosecution can present new evidence supporting these circumstances. The jury then makes a sentencing recommendation based on these aggravators and mitigators. Florida, unlike many other states, does not require that the death recommendation be unanimous. A simple majority, a single person, is all it takes for a recommendation of death.

The Fifteen Aggravating Circumstances As Defined by Florida Statute

The aggravating circumstances that can apply in any given first degree murder case are limited to those set forth in Florida Statute § 921.141(5). These circumstances are limited to fifteen possible aggravators:

1. § 921.141(5)(a): The capital felony was committed by a person previously convicted of a felony and under sentence of imprisonment or placed in community control or felony probation ("while serving a sentence").

2. § 921.141(5)(b): The defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony or of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person ("prior violent felony conviction").

3. § 921.141(5)(c): The defendant knowingly created a great risk of death to many persons ("great risk of death").

4. § 921.141(5)(d): The capital felony was committed while the defendant was engaged, or was an accomplice, in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit , any robbery; sexual battery; aggravated child abuse; abuse of an elderly person or disabled adult resulting in great bodily harm, permanent disfigurement; arson; burglary; kidnapping; aircraft piracy; or unlawful throwing, placing , or discharging of a destructive device or bomb ("during course of a felony").

5. § 921.141(5)(e): The capital felony was committed for the purpose of avoiding or preventing a lawful arrest or affecting an escape from custody ("escape or avoiding arrest").

6. § 921.141(5)(f): The capital felony was committed for pecuniary gain ("pecuniary gain").

7. § 921.141(5)(g): The capital felony was committed to disrupt or hinder the lawful exercise of any governmental function or the enforcement of laws ("disrupting government function").

8. § 921.141(5)(h): The capital felony was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel ("HAC").

9. § 921.141(5)(i): The capital felony was a homicide and was committed in cold, calculated and premeditated manner without any pretense of moral or legal justification ("CCP").

10. § 921.141(5)(j): The victim of the capital felony was a law enforcement officer engaged in the performance of his or her official duties ("LEO victim").

11. § 921.141(5)(k): The victim of the capital felony was an elected or appointed public official engaged in the performance of his or her official duties if the motive for the capital felony was related, in whole or in part, to the victim's official capacity ("government official performing duties").

12. § 921.141(5)(l): The victim of the capital felony was a person less than 12 years of age ("child under 12").

13. § 921.141(5)(m): The victim of the capital felony was particularly vulnerable due to advanced age or disability, or because the defendant stood in a position of familial or custodial authority over the victim ("advanced age or disability").

14. § 921.141(5)(n):The capital felony was committed by a criminal street gang member, as defined in § 874.03 ("street gang member").

15. § 921.141(5)(o):The capital felony was committed by a person designated as a sexual predator pursuant to § 775.21 or a person previously designated as a sexual predator who had the sexual predator designation removed ("sexual predator").

Next Friday - an in-depth look at Death in Florida continues with the mitigating factors that can apply in any first degree murder case under Florida law.

 
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