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Fewer face death penalty eight months into term of Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren

State Attorney Andrew Warren has withdrawn pursuit of the death penalty in five cases.
Published Aug. 27, 2017

TAMPA — Two years ago, a college sophomore named Nicole Nachtman was marched past cameras into a county jail, accused of murdering her mother and stepfather at their Carrollwood home.

Prosecutors called the shootings "heinous, atrocious and cruel" and declared that Nachtman acted in a "cold, calculated and premeditated manner."

They announced their intent to seek the death penalty.

Then, last month, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office quietly took capital punishment off the table.

What changed? The state attorney.

Andrew Warren has withdrawn pursuit of the death penalty in five of 24 cases he inherited when he took over the office in January, after voters ousted longtime State Attorney Mark Ober. A sixth defendant avoided death row with a guilty plea.

Seventeen of the cases await review.

Only once, so far, has Warren affirmed the prior administration's decision to seek death, although he also elected to seek it once in a more recent case.

"These decisions are the most serious and sobering decisions you make as state attorney," he said. "And it's different academically than it is when you're sitting in a chair as the one to make the decision."

Warren promised a reserved approach to capital punishment when he ran last year.

Quietly, he has been delivering on that promise.

He's a father. He's Jewish. He's a prosecutor. Along the way, all of those things have helped to shape his views, he said.

During the campaign and after he was elected, Warren summarized his death penalty philosophy by saying it should be applied "fairly and consistently and rarely."

The threat of capital punishment should not be used to coerce guilty pleas, he said in a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times. He spoke of seeking death only if defendants exhibit what the Supreme Court has called "a consciousness of guilt materially more depraved."

Before he decides anything, there's a review before the State Attorney's Office's homicide committee. The group, in existence years before Warren's tenure, meets weekly for several hours. A dozen or more senior prosecutors hear from investigators and families of victims.

They weigh in on the appropriateness of the death penalty, and then it's Warren's call whether to proceed.

"I don't make decisions in the room frequently," he said. "I want time away from the office where I can reflect on everything I'm supposed to before making those decisions."

He is reluctant to talk about specific cases.

Defendants showed signs of mental illness in at least three of the five cases where Warren backed off the death penalty, court records show.

Witnesses said Nachtman spoke of "screaming voices" in her head before the killings of her mother and stepfather. She awaits trial and, if convicted, faces a life sentence.

The prosecutions unfold against the backdrop of a capital punishment system that has changed dramatically in just the past two years.

Florida used to be one of the only states in the nation where juries could recommend a death sentence with a mere 7-5 majority. That changed when the state Supreme Court required a unanimous decision.

Rick Terrana, a Tampa lawyer who has defended clients in capital cases, said he thinks the court ruling influences the state's decision on whether to seek death.

"I can tell you, a 12-0 recommendation is a hell of a lot more difficult than 7-5 recommendation," he said.

In three decades, Terrana has seen the use of capital punishment wane as the high courts have introduced more restrictions.

"When I first started," he said, "every murder case was a death penalty case, with few exceptions."

• • •

Behind every case is the reality that capital punishment, in Florida and elsewhere, may take decades to achieve.

Attorneys know it. Many victims do, too. It's why some of them are fine with a life sentence.

Rick Miller of Tampa has waited almost three years to see the man accused of killing his daughter, Olivia, sent to prison.

"It doesn't really matter to me because he's never going to see the light of day," Miller said.

Angel Perez still awaits trial for the fatal shootings in Tampa of Olivia Miller, Brittany Snyder and Jorge Gort on Dec. 6, 2014. His case is one of those in which Warren ended the pursuit of the death penalty.

"With the death penalty, he'll probably be on there as long as I'm alive," Miller said. "I think he's got a better chance of living on death row than if they give him life in prison."

Still, for some, the mere existence of a death sentence acknowledges the magnitude of their loss.

"I'm for the death penalty. I most definitely want that," said Ruth Wachholtz, mother of Michael Wachholtz.

Her son and Jason Galehouse, both 26, were drugged, used as sex slaves, tortured and murdered in 2003.

One killer, Scott Paul Schweickert, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life. He has agreed to testify against a second defendant, Steven Lorenzo, who faces death if convicted.

It took more than a decade to bring murder charges against Lorenzo, who was convicted in federal court of giving nine men, including Wachholtz and Galehouse, a date rape drug with the intent to commit violence.

That's the one pending case from the prior state attorney that Warren has already decided merits a death sentence, though he continues to review the other 17.

It's the case that matters most to Ruth Wachholtz.

"Even if he's accused and charged and sentenced and sits in a cell for 20 years, at least it has been proven and at least there is a death penalty against him," she said.

"The wheels of justice move very slowly. And as long as they keep moving, I can handle the long, long wait."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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