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Florida man wants death penalty. 'Win-win' for everyone, he says

Pasco sheriff's deputies took this photo of Qiu Feng Ke after they said he executed his neighbor in Holiday on Jan. 23. He now faces a charge of first-degree murder and wrote a letter to the judge asking for the death penalty. The state is not seeking death in this case, however. But the judge did allow him to represent himself in court. [Courtesy of Pasco County Sheriff's Office]
Pasco sheriff's deputies took this photo of Qiu Feng Ke after they said he executed his neighbor in Holiday on Jan. 23. He now faces a charge of first-degree murder and wrote a letter to the judge asking for the death penalty. The state is not seeking death in this case, however. But the judge did allow him to represent himself in court. [Courtesy of Pasco County Sheriff's Office]

Those who plead guilty to crimes often do so hoping to receive a reduced sentence.

The transaction makes sense. The defendant is spared what could be a much harsher punishment. The state is spared from the expense and difficulty of putting on a case.

But Qiu Feng Ke, a Holiday man charged with first-degree murder in the Jan. 23 execution of his next-door neighbor, wanted to strike a different kind of deal.

In a March 13 letter, he told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Mary Handsel he'd plead guilty to killing 37-year-old Edward Lee Tudor — but only if she imposed the death penalty.

"Death sentence is a win-win for every side involved in this case," he wrote.

Tudor's family gets closure, he wrote. The attorneys from both sides "save time." The judge is spared "the (hassle) from a jury trial." The taxpayers save money. What does Qiu get?

"What I deserve," he wrote. "A life for a life."

And he added: "I'll not appeal, etc."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Sheriff: Pasco man planned, then carried out neighbor's execution

The only problem is, the criminal justice system doesn't work that way. In Florida, only juries can recommend a death sentence.

"You cannot plead guilty for the death penalty," Stetson University College of Law Professor Charles Rose said.

And that's only if the prosecution seeks the death penalty. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office isn't.

"I made an evaluation on this case, and without considering what he wants, just looking at the facts of the case," McCabe said, "I did not feel that it was one where we should file a notice to seek the death penalty."

Instead, Qiu faces life in prison if convicted. On Friday, three days after Qiu sent the letter, a judge agreed to let the 61-year-old — who has a master's degree in computer science but no legal experience — represent himself at trial.

In his March 13, one-page letter, Qiu laid out the case for why he deserves the death penalty:

He had two handguns on him when he committed the murder, he said, and shot to kill, not to wound. Actually, Qiu wrote, first he shot Tudor twice in the body, and then only shot him in the head minutes later after Tudor pleaded with him.

"Which indicates the special circumstances that this crime was carried out in a heinous and cruel manner," Qiu wrote.

He also said he had another target in mind, a woman. And had she been at his neighbor's house at the time, he would have killed her, too.

And Qiu wrote: "I've been planning this murder for more than a year."

Qiu has been forthcoming about what he did from the moment he did it. He told deputies he shot Tudor, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Two days later, in a jailhouse interview, he told a Tampa Bay Times he did it.

"It's really hard to shoot people," he said Jan. 25, adding that he didn't want to shoot Tudor in the face. "I knew I had to finish him. … There was no turning back."

"I feel bad for his parents because they lost their son," Qiu said in the interview. "I am sorry for them. But I don't regret that I killed him."

JAILHOUSE INTERVIEW: Man jailed in Pasco shooting: 'I feel bad for his parents … but I don't regret that I killed him'

Qiu's request to be put to death struck Rose as "so odd." The professor said he's seen people plead guilty, receive the death penalty and then waive their right to appeal. But he's never heard of anyone doing what Qiu asked for. Rose called it "suicide by judicial process."

He said there are three possible motivations behind Qiu's letter.

• Qiu really wants the death penalty. In his letter, he wrote he "needs" a speedy trial. That is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but most defendants waive it.

• There may be mental health issues at play. But in his letter Qiu said he was evaluated by a psychiatrist. A public defender told the court Friday there was "no reason to believe" that Qiu was incompetent.

Assistant State Attorney Bryan Sarabia said he, too, had no concerns about Qiu's mental fitness.

"In court, he was conducting himself very appropriately," Sarabia said. "He obviously understands what is going on."

• It could be theatrics, something to earn Qiu notoriety and throw off prosecutors, manipulating them into not seeking the death penalty.

The Qiu situation is reminiscent of Craig Wall, who in 2016 represented himself in a Pinellas trial for the murders of his girlfriend and baby. He wanted the death penalty and was awarded it.

"Woo hoo!" Wall yelled after the judge twice sentenced him to death.

FROM 2016: Clearwater man convicted of killing his girlfriend and baby sentenced to death on both counts

But then he grew upset when he found out it was subject to automatic review by the Florida Supreme Court.

"The system is corrupt. They're going to force my name on something against my will," he said. "As Donald Trump would say, 'This is complete utter corruption in this system.' "

In Qiu's case, his actions seem to be "more attention seeking than trying to achieve a speedy death," Rose said.

He's also not surprised the state isn't seeking death. He wouldn't either, if he were the prosecutor:

"This could be one of those instances in which the prosecutor, to some degree, is stepping in to save the defendant from themselves."

Times staff writer Laura C. Morel and TyLisa Johnson contributed to this story. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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