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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.

Mistake?

Misunderstanding?

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]

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