Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

When legal corners are cut, justice is the victim

For those of us who believe in at least trying to keep the justice system honest — why are you laughing already? — some stories in the news lately should be raising eyebrows.

This week we learned no appeals are left to save a major piece of evidence in the upcoming death penalty trial of David Lee Onstott.

The previously convicted rapist reportedly confessed to Hillsborough sheriff's detectives in the 2005 murder of 13-year-old Sarah Lunde, whose mother he dated.

But a judge threw out the confession as evidence because Onstott's requests to talk to his lawyer went ignored.

Now you remember that critical you-have-a-right-to-an-attorney line, right?

That basic, elemental right that protects the innocent-until-proved-guilty — and protects them indiscriminately, whether it's a criminal with a record as long as your arm, or one of the good guys like you and me?

This week, an appeals court affirmed the judge's ruling, meaning the trial goes forward without that confession.

Prosecutors have no physical evidence to link Onstott to the murder and attempted rape of the Ruskin sixth-grader. They can use some things he said to other people.

But his statement, his confession, his own words out of his own mouth and all the power that could have in the eyes of a jury — gone.

There's your lesson in what playing fast and loose with the rules can get you.

Less clear — but still interesting — is this week's tale of the search warrant and the mystery initials.

Two years ago, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe signed a warrant that let deputies search a Brandon apartment where they suspected drug activity.

And, yep, they found drugs, a gun and a bunch of cash and arrested 25-year-old Christopher Snipes on multiple charges.

But a little snag.

Defense lawyer Paul Carr saw that on the typed search warrant, someone had crossed out the apartment number 203 and written in 208. Next to that were written the judge's initials, CAT.

Except the judge says the changes and the initials were not written there by him. In an unusual move, he even said so in a sworn statement.



Deliberate attempt to cut corners that could ultimately gut the case?

Stay tuned.

And finally, the infamous John Couey asked for a lawyer while he was being questioned about 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford but did not get one.

His confession was thrown out, too.

Citrus Circuit Judge Ric Howard called denying a suspect access to a lawyer "a material and a profound violation of one of the most bedrock principles of criminal law," in case anybody was wondering how he really felt about it, and good for him.

In Couey's case, there was still enough evidence to seal his fate and ultimately send him to death row.

Maybe you don't buy that the rules have to be the same for everyone, and that the justice system is only as strong as staying true to those rules.

Then imagine, in a rush to catch a bad guy, an overstep that could cost an entire case.

Imagine a true criminal, a sex offender, even a child murderer, getting a not guilty because of it.

Could it get any more unjust than that?

When legal corners are cut, justice is the victim 05/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2008 1:45pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trump sprinkles political attacks into Scout Jamboree speech

    GLEN JEAN, W.Va. — Ahead of President Donald Trump's appearance Monday at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, the troops were offered some advice on the gathering's official blog: Fully hydrate. Be "courteous" and "kind." And avoid the kind of divisive chants heard during the 2016 campaign such as "build …

    President Donald Trump addresses the Boy Scouts of America's 2017 National Scout Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, W.Va., July 24, 2017. [New York Times]
  2. Trump, seething about attorney general, speculates about firing Sessions, sources say

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spoken with advisers about firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as he continues to rage against Sessions' decision to recuse himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation.

  3. John McCain to return to Senate for health care vote

    WASHINGTON — The Senate plans to vote Tuesday to try to advance a sweeping rewrite of the nation's health-care laws with the last-minute arrival of Sen. John McCain — but tough talk from President Donald Trump won no new public support from skeptical GOP senators for the flagging effort that all but …

  4. Last orca calf born in captivity at a SeaWorld park dies


    ORLANDO — The last killer whale born in captivity under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program died Monday at the company's San Antonio, Texas, park, SeaWorld said.

    Thet orca Takara helps guide her newborn, Kyara, to the water's surface at SeaWorld San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas, in April. Kyara was the final killer whale born under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program. The Orlando-based company says 3-month-old Kyara died Monday. [Chris Gotshall/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via AP]
  5. Blake Snell steps up, but Rays lose to Orioles anyway (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell stepped up when he had to Monday and delivered an impressive career-high seven-plus innings for the Rays. That it wasn't enough in what ended up a 5-0 loss to the Orioles that was their season-high fifth straight is symptomatic of the mess they are in right now.

    Tim Beckham stands hands on hips after being doubled off first.