Tuesday, November 21, 2017
News Roundup

Romano: Judge who imposed death penalty reflects on the practice

RECOMMENDED READING


Retirement, the judge has discovered, could not be better.

There are grandchildren nearby who deserve to be spoiled, and he has just the disposition to do it up right. He lives in the same community where he was born 74 years ago, and he can't imagine a finer life anywhere else.

And then one day he picks up a newspaper, and a familiar name jumps out at him. A death warrant has been signed for a man convicted of two 1985 murders.

The same man he once sent to death row.

• • •

I understand the arguments against the death penalty.

I recognize that our justice system is far from perfect, and there is a chance that more than one innocent man is sitting on death row. And I get the idea that government-sanctioned executions put us in the same category of nations we consider barbaric and extreme.

Yet I still cannot rail against the death penalty. When an execution in Oklahoma was recently botched, I found myself unconcerned about the condemned man's final minutes. Instead, I researched stories about his victim, who suffered an even worse fate.

This is why I sought out Judge Ray E. Ulmer Jr.

I wanted to understand how this highly respected judge since the mid 1970s felt in retrospect about sentencing someone to die. I wondered whether he had nightmares. Regrets. I wondered if time had hardened his resolve or caused him to rethink his views.

Ulmer, who has come out of retirement part time to handle foreclosure cases, was once considered among the toughest judges in Tampa Bay.

They called him Raiford Ray (in honor of the prison near Raiford) after he began handing down maximum sentences for jail escapees. A group of prisoners at the county jail once sent him a card on Mother's Day dubbing him "Mother of the Year,'' and not in a kind way.

It was Ulmer who presided over the murder trial of John Henry, whose death warrant was recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott and who is scheduled to be executed June 18 if doctors determine he is sane.

In Ulmer's court, Henry was convicted of repeatedly stabbing his wife, Suzanne, in the neck while her 5-year-old son was in another room in their Zephyrhills home. Henry covered her with a rug, smoked a cigarette and then drove his stepson to a wooded area in Hillsborough County, where he stabbed the boy to death.

When it came time for sentencing, Ulmer appeared more shaken than Henry. His voice quavered as he read the declaration the state required with any death sentence.

What intrigued me was that Ulmer later told a reporter he would consider it a character flaw if he actually had enjoyed handing down that sentence.

"You know the guy who stops traffic to pick up a turtle in the road and has everybody blowing their horn and giving him the finger? That's me,'' Ulmer told me last week when explaining his outlook on life and death. "Knowing a case could be heading in that direction is an awesome responsibility, and it always concerned me greatly.

"You can't be flippant. You can't go in there like you're some badass and say 'Everybody wants this guy to die, and I'm going to nail him.' That doesn't work for me.''

As he talked about improvements in DNA testing and the possibility that condemned killers might be exonerated too late, Ulmer grabs his arms as if he has just given himself the shivers.

"I just can't imagine anything so horrible,'' Ulmer said. "I don't even want to think about it happening.''

Yet for all his concerns about the responsibilities that come with the sentence, Ulmer says he still believes in the death penalty. He believes it is a necessary deterrent. And he believes it is justice. He believes it should be reserved for cases where guilt is beyond doubt, and circumstances warrant the penalty.

As it turns out, Ulmer sent four men to death row, and either the conviction or the sentence was overturned in all four cases. Ulmer says he's fine with that.

He changed one sentence himself to life in prison after defense attorneys presented new evidence. The state Supreme Court did the same in another. In the case of serial killer Bobby Joe Long, the conviction was overturned because of questions about his confession, and he was retried a couple of times before prosecutors gave up. Long, who admitted to killing 10 women, is still on death row for another conviction.

As for the Henry case, his conviction for murdering his wife was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court because jurors heard too much testimony about the murder of his stepson during the trial. Henry was retried under another judge and once again convicted and sentenced to death.

After talking for more than an hour, it's time for Ulmer to return to his life of grandkids and stress-free days. As we depart, I ask whether Henry's potential death concerns him.

Ulmer pauses and looks off in the distance for a handful of seconds. When he looks back, his gaze is steady.

"No,'' he says, "not at all.''

Comments
Cambridge Christian’s Caleb Young makes up for lost season

Cambridge Christian’s Caleb Young makes up for lost season

TAMPA — For Cambridge Christian, last Friday’s Class 2A region final against Indian Rocks Christian represented a hurdle that the Lancers couldn’t quite clear a year ago. For one Lancer in particular, it was the Golden Eagles themselves that brought ...
Updated: 8 minutes ago
Bucs journal: Defense struggling to get off the field on third and long

Bucs journal: Defense struggling to get off the field on third and long

TAMPA — Third and long, normally an ideal situation for an NFL defense, continues to be a problem as the Bucs try to get opposing offenses off the field.In the second half of Sunday’s game, the Dolphins converted six third downs when they needed 8 ya...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Bucs-Falcons: Has this former Buc become a pass-rushing force?

Bucs-Falcons: Has this former Buc become a pass-rushing force?

TAMPA — The Bucs face the defending NFC champions twice in their final six games. As they prepare to go to Atlanta on Sunday, former Tampa Bay first-round pick Adrian Clayborn is enjoying quite a two-week run.Clayborn, 29, had six sacks Nov. 12 in a ...
Updated: 9 minutes ago
Fennelly: USF-UCF rivalry needs more than directional disrespect

Fennelly: USF-UCF rivalry needs more than directional disrespect

TAMPA — It’s the biggest football game in USF history.It’s two days and 90 miles away. USF at UCF. The 9-1 Bulls against the 10-0 Knights. It’s USF coach Charlie Strong against UCF/Florida/Nebraska coach Scott Frost. It’s the best these two programs ...
Updated: 10 minutes ago

Chip Kelly is not the best candidate for Florida job

For the sake of a beleaguered and bedraggled fan base, here’s hoping Chip Kelly becomes the next head coach of the Florida Gators even though I think he’s not a great fit — culturally, geographically and philosophically — at UF.Gator Nation needs som...
Updated: 10 minutes ago

Lane Kiffin knows speculation about his future grows with each victory

BOCA RATON — Lane Kiffin already knows what profession he will choose once his coaching career ends.Kiffin, in his first season at Florida Atlantic, thinks he is destined to join the sports-media ranks. It will provide him opportunity to switch roles...
Updated: 12 minutes ago
Strong’s slip about UCF’s Griffin seen as motivation for Knights

Strong’s slip about UCF’s Griffin seen as motivation for Knights

TAMPA — While saying nothing to purposely fan the flames of the USF-UCF rivalry during his weekly news conference Tuesday, Bulls coach Charlie Strong provided fuel for the Knights’ best player.He used the H-word when discussing Knights senior outside...
Updated: 18 minutes ago
Miami up to No. 2, behind Alabama, in College Football Playoff rankings

Miami up to No. 2, behind Alabama, in College Football Playoff rankings

Miami moved up to No. 2 behind Alabama in the College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night, with Clemson slipping one spot to three and Oklahoma holding at four. Wisconsin and Auburn remained next up behind the top four in a week when the...
Updated: 19 minutes ago
Teen idol David Cassidy, ‘Partridge Family’ star, dies at 67

Teen idol David Cassidy, ‘Partridge Family’ star, dies at 67

David Cassidy, the former star of "The Partridge Family" TV hit of the 1970s and a reluctant teen idol to the boomer generation, died Tuesday evening of liver failure, his publicist confirmed. He was 67.The singer and actor died in Fort Lauderdale af...
Updated: 1 hour ago
A new threat this shopping season: toys that can spy on kids

A new threat this shopping season: toys that can spy on kids

ST. PETERSBURG — Not all sinister toys are as obvious as a Chucky doll. Many present more subtle threats — choking hazards, high lead content, privacy concerns. And as the biggest shopping season of the year kicks off, consumer advocates are urging s...
Updated: 1 hour ago