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Fewer face death penalty eight months into term of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren

TAMPA — Two years ago, a college sophomore named Nicole Nachtman was marched past cameras into a county jail, accused of murdering her mother and stepfather at their Carrollwood home.

Prosecutors called the shootings "heinous, atrocious and cruel" and declared that Nachtman acted in a "cold, calculated and premeditated manner."

They announced their intent to seek the death penalty.

Then, last month, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office quietly took capital punishment off the table.

What changed? The state attorney.

Andrew Warren has withdrawn pursuit of the death penalty in five of 24 cases he inherited when he took over the office in January, after voters ousted longtime State Attorney Mark Ober. A sixth defendant avoided death row with a guilty plea.

Seventeen of the cases await review.

Only once, so far, has Warren affirmed the prior administration's decision to seek death, although he also elected to seek it once in a more recent case.

"These decisions are the most serious and sobering decisions you make as state attorney," he said. "And it's different academically than it is when you're sitting in a chair as the one to make the decision."

Warren promised a reserved approach to capital punishment when he ran last year.

Quietly, he has been delivering on that promise.

He's a father. He's Jewish. He's a prosecutor. Along the way, all of those things have helped to shape his views, he said.

During the campaign and after he was elected, Warren summarized his death penalty philosophy by saying it should be applied "fairly and consistently and rarely."

The threat of capital punishment should not be used to coerce guilty pleas, he said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. He spoke of seeking death only if defendants exhibit what the Supreme Court has called "a consciousness of guilt materially more depraved."

Before he decides anything, there's a review before the State Attorney's Office's homicide committee. The group, in existence years before Warren's tenure, meets weekly for several hours. A dozen or more senior prosecutors hear from investigators and families of victims.

They weigh in on the appropriateness of the death penalty, and then it's Warren's call whether to proceed.

"I don't make decisions in the room frequently," he said. "I want time away from the office where I can reflect on everything I'm supposed to before making those decisions."

He is reluctant to talk about specific cases.

Defendants showed signs of mental illness in at least three of the five cases where Warren backed off the death penalty, court records show.

Witnesses said Nachtman spoke of "screaming voices" in her head before the killings of her mother and stepfather. She awaits trial and, if convicted, faces a life sentence.

The prosecutions unfold against the backdrop of a capital punishment system that has changed dramatically in just the past two years.

Florida used to be one of the only states in the nation where juries could recommend a death sentence with a mere 7-5 majority. That changed when the state Supreme Court required a unanimous decision.

Rick Terrana, a Tampa lawyer who has defended clients in capital cases, said he thinks the court ruling influences the state's decision on whether to seek death.

"I can tell you, a 12-0 recommendation is a hell of a lot more difficult than 7-5 recommendation," he said.

In three decades, Terrana has seen the use of capital punishment wane as the high courts have introduced more restrictions.

"When I first started," he said, "every murder case was a death penalty case, with few exceptions."

• • •

Behind every case is the reality that capital punishment, in Florida and elsewhere, may take decades to achieve.

Attorneys know it. Many victims do, too. It's why some of them are fine with a life sentence.

Rick Miller of Tampa has waited almost three years to see the man accused of killing his daughter, Olivia, sent to prison.

"It doesn't really matter to me because he's never going to see the light of day," Miller said.

Angel Perez still awaits trial for the fatal shootings in Tampa of Olivia Miller, Brittany Snyder and Jorge Gort on Dec. 6, 2014. His case is one of those in which Warren ended the pursuit of the death penalty.

"With the death penalty, he'll probably be on there as long as I'm alive," Miller said. "I think he's got a better chance of living on death row than if they give him life in prison."

Still, for some, the mere existence of a death sentence acknowledges the magnitude of their loss.

"I'm for the death penalty. I most definitely want that," said Ruth Wachholtz, mother of Michael Wachholtz.

Her son and Jason Galehouse, both 26, were drugged, used as sex slaves, tortured and murdered in 2003.

One killer, Scott Paul Schweickert, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life. He has agreed to testify against a second defendant, Steven Lorenzo, who faces death if convicted.

It took more than a decade to bring murder charges against Lorenzo, who was convicted in federal court of giving nine men, including Wachholtz and Galehouse, a date rape drug with the intent to commit violence.

That's the one pending case from the prior state attorney that Warren has already decided merits a death sentence, though he continues to review the other 17.

It's the case that matters most to Ruth Wachholtz.

"Even if he's accused and charged and sentenced and sits in a cell for 20 years, at least it has been proven and at least there is a death penalty against him," she said.

"The wheels of justice move very slowly. And as long as they keep moving, I can handle the long, long wait."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Death penalty on the table

Since taking office eight months ago, Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren affirmed the prior state attorney's plan to seek the death penalty in one case and, with input from staff, raised it anew in another.

Steven Lorenzo, 58, is accused of torturing and murdering Jason Galehouse and Michael Wachholtz, both 26, in December 2003. The state says Lorenzo and Scott Schweickert lured them to Lorenzo's home in Seminole Heights, drugged them, and killed them. Both are serving federal prison sentences for drug convictions stemming from the case. Last year, Schweickert pleaded guilty to a murder charge and agreed to testify against Lorenzo in exchange for a life sentence.

Keith Davis, 43, is accused of stabbing to death nurse William Leslie McGoff, 53, during a 2016 robbery at McGoff's home in the Wellswood area of Tampa. This was the first death penalty case to be filed after Warren took office.

Death penalty withdrawn

Warren withdrew plans to seek the death penalty in these five cases, though it was sought under the term of the former state attorney, Mark Ober.

Carlos Rivas, 54, was sentenced to life in prison in April for beating to death Darryl Brown, 58, at the University Oakwood Apartments in 2012. Rivas had a history of mental illness.

Lawrence Bongiovanni, 24, was sentenced to life for the brutal 2013 stabbing of Kenneth Redding, a Riverview store clerk. Bongiovanni had a history of mental illness.

Jose Gonzalez, 51, was sentenced to life for the 2014 rape and murder of 21-year-old Meaghan Casady in Riverview.

Angel Perez, 25, still awaits trial in the fatal 2014 Tampa shootings of Olivia Miller, Brittany Snyder and Jorge Gort. Questions of his mental competency have dogged the case.

Nicole Nachtman, 23, is awaiting trial for the 2015 fatal shootings of her mother and stepfather, Myriam and Robert Dienes.

The death penalty was also withdrawn in an appellate case:

Khalid Pasha, 73, had twice been sentenced to death when the Florida Supreme Court overturned his sentence earlier this year. Neither jury was unanimous in the penalty. Warren's office said it would not seek death.

Death penalty under review

These defendants in Hillsborough County murder cases still face possible death sentences, but Warren is in the process of reviewing their cases.

Washington Beltran, 23, is accused in the 2013 stabbing death of Wilkin Baker, 27, behind a Brandon storage facility. Questions about Beltran's mental health led to his treatment in a state hospital.

Marisol Best, 32, is accused of fatally shooting her in-laws, Virgil and Shirley Best, while the couple prayed one night in 2015 inside their Riverview home.

Jason Burnett, 41, is accused in the fatal shootings of Nell Mason, 52, and her roommate, Fern Giddings, 56, during a 2013 home invasion robbery in the Citrus Park area.

Keith Dukes, 51, is accused of stabbing and shooting his wife, Michelle, in front of their three daughters in 2015 in Riverview.

Landrick Edwards, 27, is accused in the 2013 robbery and shooting of John M. Dooley, 56, a Tampa cab driver. Competency issues sent Edwards to a state hospital, but his trial is set for later this month.

Alfred Fennie, 55, is already on death row for the 1991 murder of Mary Shearin in Hernando County. In 2015, he was charged with the murder of Jamie C. Duncan, who was killed, days before Shearin, while walking home from work in Tampa.

Austin Hamilton, 27, is accused of beating his girlfriend's infant son, Sincere Williams, to death after the baby urinated on Hamilton during a diaper change.

Kimwana Hamilton, 41, is accused in a 2016 shooting rampage in east Tampa that killed Nisha Carson, 24, and Alfonso Igles, 47.

Ricky Hathorn, 48, is accused in the 2016 beating deaths of a homeless couple, Tommy Skeens, 52, and Lara Kuchar, 45, in an abandoned car wash near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Kuchar was also raped.

Michael Herald, 50, is accused of killing John Engelhart, 76, and his wife, Nancy Engelhart, 73, in a shed on their Dover property, days after the couple hired him to work as a handyman.

Michael Keetley, 46, is accused in the shotgun slayings of brothers Juan and Sergio Guitron and the attempted murders of four others on Thanksgiving 2010 in Ruskin.

Jonathan Kendrick, 26, is accused of breaking into the east Tampa home of 78-year-old Loretta Jackson in 2015, beating her with a vacuum cleaner and suffocating her with a pillow.

Charles Martinez, 27, is accused of stabbing Lindsey Greene, 25, and Jennifer Kalb, 23, inside a Brandon townhouse in 2013 before setting their bodies on fire.

Elisamuel Pacheco, 28, is accused of sexually abusing and beating to death Jaslene Bryan, his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter. Attorneys have questioned Pacheco's competency.

Granville Ritchie, 38, is accused of the 2014 rape and murder of 9-year-old Felecia Williams in a Temple Terrace apartment. Her body was left in waters near the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

James Ware, 58, is accused of the 2015 stabbing death of his girlfriend, Denise Cogmon, 60, in her Tampa home.

Darryl Williams, 51, is accused of shooting Tiffany James in front of their twin 7-year-old daughters on Halloween night 2015 outside her Brandon apartment.

Fewer face death penalty eight months into term of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren 08/25/17 [Last modified: Saturday, August 26, 2017 8:28pm]
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