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Death for a cop killer: A decision too big not to be unanimous

We elect judges to make the hard calls, none of them harder than whether a man deserves to die for his crimes.

And could there be a tougher decision than the one Hillsborough Circuit Judge Emmett Lamar Battles will soon make on the fate of convicted cop killer Humberto Delgado Jr.?

Sentencing someone to death should never be easy, but maybe it's clearer when the criminal is a predator, a serial killer, a vicious person driven by greed or meanness. It must also help when the same jurors who said guilty then vote unanimously for the ultimate punishment, since the judge must give their opinion great weight.

The vote to recommend the death penalty for Delgado was 8-4, not unanimous as is required in other states, and more on that in a minute. And his case is a complicated one.

On a fall night in 2009, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts crossed paths with a wild-haired homeless man pushing a shopping cart. Delgado was ex-Army, ex-cop, previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for psychotic episodes. According to testimony, he had thought everyone from the Masons to the rapper 50 Cent was out to get him.

While questioning Delgado, Cpl. Roberts could not have known about the guns in that shopping cart. A cop, father and husband was killed.

Psychiatrists for the prosecution said Delgado was not insane. He stood trial and the jury said guilty. Some who followed the case thought that jury would then recommend life in prison, because if this man was not crazy he was surely a different kind of cop killer than too many others we have come to know. Even a psychiatrist who testified for the state in trial was back on the stand for the defense afterward, supporting a life sentence for a man she said had been "in a desperate state."

Our law lists "aggravating circumstances," or reasons to justify a death sentence: The murder was planned, the motive was money, the defendant a sexual predator. A big one in this case: The victim was a police officer killed in the line of duty. The law sees those who stand between us and the evil in the world as a different kind of victim, and this makes sense.

But if you follow death penalty cases, you might worry juries value victims differently. Yes, trials are complex and layered in nuance. But at the same time as Delgado's trial, in another courtroom not far away was a felon named Vincent Brown, accused of locking his girlfriend Jennifer Johnson in a car trunk and brutally murdering her. The jury said life.

What fate will Judge Battles decide for Delgado on Feb. 10? He is the judge who did not send Jennifer Porter to prison after she hit those children with her car and fled. His decision was not popular in some corners, but popularity is not necessarily what we want in our judges.

Other states require a unanimous jury vote for death. Ours has the dubious distinction of being the only one that allows a simple majority vote for what might be the biggest decision an average person will ever make.

A pending bill would require that vote to be 12-0. If it goes nowhere because your legislators worry about looking like coddlers of killers, it's too bad. Because decisions like the one before Judge Battles — you know, hard ones — are what we elect lawmakers for, too.

Death for a cop killer: A decision too big not to be unanimous 01/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 7:24pm]
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