Some murderers choose life in prison to avoid death penalty

In the murder case against William S. Coffin III, a grim life-or-death negotiation came to the surface last week.

Coffin, 32, is considering pleading guilty to fatally stabbing a Largo woman and spending the rest of his life in prison, a prosecutor said in a court hearing. Coffin wants something in return: no death penalty.

This might sound like the ultimate choice between bad alternatives, but it's not as rare as it may sound.

There have been scattered cases in the Tampa Bay area in recent years of murderers pleading guilty to get life sentences to avoid the possibility of the death penalty.

Like just about everything else involving executions, it's a practice that can be controversial and spark strong emotions.

Take Anthony J. Giancola, a former Hillsborough County middle school principal who gained notoriety in 2007 when he was arrested for buying cocaine in his school office. In 2012, in an event never fully explained, Gian­cola went on a murderous rampage in mid-Pinellas County.

Deborah Clem's nephew, Justin Lee Vandenburg, 27, was one of two people Giancola killed that day.

Last year, Giancola pleaded guilty to two murders, four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated battery. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office agreed not to seek the death penalty, and he was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences, plus 30 years.

"I think he got off easy," Deborah Clem said. "He gets to see his family, he gets to go to bed at night. What does my nephew get? Nothing. He didn't even get to say goodbye."

But in some cases, victims' families actually see this as a better alternative, partly because they avoid the seemingly endless appeals that come with every death penalty case.

Giancola is not the only one who chose this route.

In January, Egan Fernando Atkins admitted in Hillsborough Circuit Court that he broke into a home and stabbed a woman with a kitchen knife. His guilty plea gave him a life sentence and spared him the death penalty.

Last year, Michael Scott Norris pleaded guilty to killing two men in St. Petersburg after he escaped a Largo work-release center. Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty, and Norris got three life sentences.

Under Florida law, judges have only two options for those convicted of first-degree murder: the death penalty or life in prison with no parole.

But it's not easy for prosecutors to obtain a death sentence. Under the law, people can be sentenced to death only when the killing involves certain "aggravating circumstances," such as murder committed for money or one that was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel." On the other hand, juries and judges weigh "mitigating circumstances" that argue against the death penalty, such as whether the defendant had an otherwise clean record, or whether he was mentally impaired.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said key for him in any case is to listen to victims' families.

"There are some that don't like the death penalty, don't agree with it," he said. "There are others that want it, very strongly want it."

Also important, he said, is trying to predict whether a jury would recommend a death sentence, a judge would impose it, and appeals courts would uphold it.

In the case of a death penalty for Giancola, "I thought it was going to be a real uphill climb to get it, and an even bigger uphill climb to keep it," said McCabe, citing the killer's mental health issues.

In court last week, Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger said attorneys for Coffin, accused of murdering Patricia Ann King, 50, in her Largo home, had mentioned the idea of a guilty plea.

Ripplinger said that before the state would consider it, he wanted to make sure the defense had more information about the case — a move apparently designed to make sure Coffin is fully informed and less likely to file an appeal later.

If a judge sentences a man or woman to death, appeals can easily last more than a decade. That's one reason their families sometimes don't mind a guilty plea and life sentence, said Mark Cox, spokesman for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

"We've had cases where the victim's family no longer wishes us to go after the death penalty, not so much for the defendant, but for their wishes," he said. "They want closure."

All options are difficult, and there can be different opinions even within the same families, said Bobbie Hodson, victim advocate for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "There's no happy ending in a murder case, unfortunately."

There is one thing some families appreciate about a guilty plea. The killer has to stand up in court and admit he or she did it. That often does not happen in a trial, not even when someone is sentenced to death.

Because of the trials and appeals, various studies argue that the cost of prosecuting murder defendants actually exceeds the cost of simply imprisoning them for life. Although politicians and advocates argue the cost-effectiveness, this particular debate stays mostly out of the courtroom. The lawyers are supposed to be arguing for justice, not savings.

Defendants usually plead guilty only when the evidence is overwhelming.

But from their point of view, is life in prison really much better than execution?

It can be. On death row, killers are housed individually and spend little time outside cells. Inmates know they'll spend more than a decade that way.

But a murderer sentenced to life can be housed in the general prison population, where "you can work, you can socialize, you can make some sort of life for yourself," said defense attorney Bjorn Brunvand.

Times researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com (727) 893-8232. On Twitter: @ckruegertimes.

Some murderers choose life in prison to avoid death penalty 04/20/14 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2014 10:39pm]

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