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Andrew Warren threads the needle in death penalty debate

TAMPA — Amid a statewide furor that arose when his Orlando counterpart announced her opposition to the death penalty, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren sought to clarify his own position on capital punishment.

In a three-page policy proposal in March, he wrote that he would pursue the death penalty only in the very worst cases, and not in cases "where mental illness played a role in the commission of the crime."

"My mission as State Attorney is to keep our community safe while promoting fairness and justice for everyone in Hillsborough," he wrote. "Given the lack of evidence that the death penalty deters crime and legitimate questions about its fair and just application, capital punishment does not help accomplish that mission."

The proposal did not become the official policy of Warren's office. But along with numerous emails and other communications obtained through a public records request by the Tampa Bay Times, it offers a window of insight into the new state attorney's thinking.

The documents show Warren finding common ground on both sides of the issue, with those who would limit use of the death penalty and with those who believe there will always be a place for it.

• • •

On March 16, Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for Orange and Osceola Counties, made national headlines — and touched off a Supreme Court fight with the governor — when she announced that she would not seek the death penalty for an accused cop killer, or anyone else.

Like Ayala, Warren is a newly elected prosecutor who has vowed to push reforms of the local criminal justice system. Unlike Ayala, he was on record before his election with his belief that the death penalty should be used "fairly and consistently and rarely."

But when his counterpart in Orlando made her surprise announcement, Warren's office scrambled to respond to local media inquiries about his own position on capital punishment, records show.

Emails exchanged with his top advisers include several drafts of an official statement. The final wording noted that local prosecutors have discretion on whether to pursue the death penalty. Warren also pledged to pursue death only in the rarest and most egregious of cases.

His drafted policy proposal, composed about the same time, is more critical of capital punishment. It notes the lengthy appeals process, the huge financial cost of executions and the risk of innocent people being executed.

The proposal cites a report from the Fair Punishment Project, a group affiliated with Harvard Law School, which last year named Hillsborough as one of 16 counties nationwide that were "outliers" in their frequent use of the death penalty. The report was critical of former State Attorney Mark Ober, who was at the time battling Warren for re-election. Warren narrowly beat the longtime incumbent.

Warren wrote that some of the Fair Punishment report's conclusions were debatable, and "may have been motivated by policy positions." Nevertheless, he wrote, the county still used the death penalty more often than most.

"We need to reduce our use of the death penalty in Hillsborough," he wrote. "To be considered one of the worst jurisdictions in the country for our use of the death penalty is unacceptable."

Rena Frazier, the spokeswoman for Warren's office, said the draft death penalty proposal was an "unfinished memo" that Warren considered distributing to his assistant state attorneys for guidance. But the office never released it, she said, because Warren's position on the death penalty had been disseminated in news stories by late March.

Since taking over, he has withdrawn the pursuit of the death penalty in five of 24 cases he inherited. He's seeking death in the case against Keith Davis, accused of killing a nurse. He affirmed Ober's call to execute Steven Lorenzo, who awaits trial in a pair of torture-murders. And he agreed that Adam Davis, who helped his girlfriend kill her mother in 1998, should get death at his court-ordered resentencing. Many other cases remain under review.

Text messages and emails exchanged between Warren and Public Defender Julianne Holt show that Holt's office has sent "mitigation letters" to the state attorney concerning death penalty defendants. Some were cases in which the death penalty was later withdrawn. In several, the defendant's mental health was called into question.

Frazier said mental illness is one of the potential mitigating factors the office considers in deciding whether to pursue the death penalty. Specifically, she said, prosecutors consider whether the defendant had "a diminished capacity to control one's actions and understand consequences," rather than "a penchant for bad acts."

•••

Like a lot of newly elected state attorneys, Warren has vowed big changes — diversion programs for first-time misdemeanors, a reworking of juvenile justice, a conviction integrity unit to keep the innocent out of prison.

Like his counterparts, he has sought advice from national groups with like-minded goals.

His guides appear to include Miriam Krinsky, a California lawyer and former federal prosecutor. She runs Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that advises reform-minded prosecutors.

Krinsky said her group has worked with 30 to 35 top prosecutors nationwide. They share ideas about a wide array of criminal justice issues, counter to the so-called "tough-on-crime" policies of the 1980s and 1990s.

"We work with prosecutors throughout the nation who are looking to bring new thinking to the challenges of the justice system," she said.

Before Ayala made her death penalty announcement, she got advice from Krinsky, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Records show Warren's office also ran a draft of his death penalty statement by Krinsky before it was distributed to local media, though her suggestion was not included.

•••

The day of Ayala's announcement, Gary Weisman, Warren's chief of staff, wrote an email noting that the case at the center of Ayala's announcement involved the murder of a police officer.

"Might be good to reach out to law enforcement in the next day or so to indicate how you value their partnership and how one state attorney does not speak for all state attorneys," he wrote.

A few days later, on March 23, Warren sent Ayala a text message.

"I know this is a really stressful time for you," he wrote. "Stay strong. You have friends and supporters within the (Florida Prosecuting Attorney's Association) and beyond."

In the weeks that followed, records show that Warren had conversations with the Tampa Police Benevolent Association. He also produced a video for the police union talking about his views on the death penalty.

On April 27, Assistant State Attorney Jay Pruner emailed to let Warren know the state Supreme Court had upheld the death sentences of cop killer Dontae Morris.

"Great news," Warren replied.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Andrew Warren threads the needle in death penalty debate 10/02/17 [Last modified: Sunday, October 1, 2017 8:57pm]
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