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Prosecutors defend death penalty practices in wake of Harvard report that singled out Hillsborough, Pinellas

The state attorneys in two Tampa Bay area counties disputed criticisms in a Harvard University study Wednesday that called both "outliers" in their use of the death penalty.

Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober issued a lengthy statement defending his record and seeking to discredit the Fair Punishment Project, the Harvard Law School group that produced the study.

"The group releasing this report opposes the death penalty, and its report is nothing more than a position paper to support its cause," Ober said. "It makes no attempt to be fair and balanced."

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe called the study "intellectually dishonest."

"They use trigger words," McCabe said. "They use incendiary language."

The Fair Punishment Project placed Hillsborough and Pinellas among 16 counties in the nation that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015, a finding it attributed to overzealous prosecutors, a lack of regard for mitigating factors like mental illness, and racial disparities.

The Tampa Bay Times received an advance copy of the report, embargoed until Wednesday morning's editions, but prosecutors did not — and therefore were at a loss to comment until after it was made public.

"The number of murder cases in those five years. One death penalty per year? You know, I just don't see where that rose to the level of blood lust or whatever they're trying to say," McCabe said. "What I saw looked more like a position paper than an academic study."

In a statement sent on campaign stationery, Ober said the report had simply declared the death penalty to be broken, based on "arbitrary criteria," rather than consider all relevant factors.

"In every death penalty case, my office carefully reviews the evidence and the facts surrounding the case," he said. "We carefully consider all the aggravating and mitigating factors in determining whether it is appropriate to have the jury and judge consider the death penalty as a sentencing option.

"We do not take lightly our responsibility to charge accurately in any case, especially a death penalty case. We seek justice one case at a time. We do not make decisions based on arbitrary standards that a special interest group opposing the death penalty establishes."

Ober went on to reference the case of Humberto Delgado, which was mentioned specifically in the report. Delgado, who was convicted of the 2009 shooting death of Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts, later had his death sentence overturned by the Florida Supreme Court due to his history of severe mental illness.

"After hearing all the evidence, a judge and a jury agreed that the death penalty was appropriate," Ober wrote of the Delgado case.

He also noted the cases of Dontae Morris, who was sentenced to death for murdering two Tampa police officers, and Edward Covington, sentenced to death for the brutal killings of his girlfriend and her two kids.

"I believe the people of Hillsborough County agree with my office's decision to seek the death penalty in these brutal and heinous cases," Ober wrote.

Bill Loughery, a retired Pinellas County prosecutor who sent killers Patrick Evans and Genghis Kocaker to death row, noted the jury heard all the evidence in both cases, including aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

"None of the evidence was hidden from the jury by the state," Loughery said. "They got to consider those things, and they recommended death. Maybe Harvard just disagrees with the jury."

Robert Smith, one of the report's researchers, reiterated Wednesday that the group itself has no official stance on the death penalty, but he personally believes it is unconstitutional.

"While we are not an advocacy organization," Smith said, "I believe that the results of our study are consistent with the view that the death penalty is administered in an unconstitutional manner."

Times staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

Prosecutors defend death penalty practices in wake of Harvard report that singled out Hillsborough, Pinellas 10/12/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 12, 2016 8:31pm]
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