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State seeks renewed death sentences as Florida high court backtracks on unanimous juries

Several Tampa Bay area death row inmates were re-sentenced to life, or on their way to new penalty hearings, after a 2016 decision struck down Florida’s old death penalty law.

TAMPA — William Deparvine and Ray Lamar Johnston are not sympathetic characters. Both men were convicted of horrible crimes in Hillsborough County. And both men were sentenced to die because of it.

Both men also had trials in which the jury was not unanimous about whether death was an appropriate sentence. That lack of consensus became a problem; ultimately, it put each of them on track for new sentencing hearings, with new juries, set for later this year.

Now, though, it appears the new sentencing hearings might not happen. And some lawyers say that’s unfair.

Prosecutors recently asked a judge to re-impose the original death sentences for Deparvine and Johnston. They cited a recent Florida Supreme Court decision, which reversed an earlier high court ruling that made unanimous juries a requirement going forward. A judge in Hillsborough County both on hold until after the Florida Supreme Court decides whether the death sentences in cases like theirs can stand.

William J. Deparvine looks back during the first day of his murder trial in 2005. [Times (2005)]

Elsewhere in the state, some prosecutors have done the same for other death row cases that featured non-unanimous juries. Defense attorneys and legal scholars have raised constitutional questions, and warned of reverberations throughout Florida jurisprudence.

“Reinstating these death sentences would destabilize Florida’s entire judicial system, upend the most basic and longstanding principles of finality of judgments and waiver, and erode public confidence in the fair administration of Florida’s death penalty,” said Maria DeLiberato, a lawyer who specializes in death penalty appeals.

The Florida Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the issue next month.

This all happened because of a case called Hurst. It was a Florida case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2016 struck down the state’s death penalty law. The Hurst decision was later interpreted as requiring that juries be unanimous if they are to recommend the death penalty. Previously in Florida, a bare majority of 7-5 was all it took.

In the wake of Hurst, there came the question of what happens to the men already on death row. Ultimately, it was decided that those with non-unanimous juries, whose sentences were not finalized by 2002, could be eligible for new sentences.

In the Tampa Bay area, prosecutors identified 17 death row inmates whose cases fit the bill. Eight cases were from Pinellas County, seven from Hillsborough, and two from Pasco.

Of those 17 defendants, six were re-sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors decided not to go for a new death sentence, court records show. One defendant appears to have had no significant court activity in recent years. In another case, the defendant was found to have been wrongfully convicted and was set free.

Only one defendant had a new jury impaneled for a new sentencing hearing. He got life.

The remaining eight defendants were all slowly working toward their own new sentencing hearings. They included Deparvine and Johnston.

Deparvine was found guilty of the 2003 murders of Rick and Karla Van Dusen, whom he killed after telling them he wanted to purchase a vintage truck they had for sale. The jury in Deparvine’s trial was split on the death penalty, 8-4.

Johnston was sentenced to death in 2000 after a jury’s unanimous decision on the death penalty for the murder of LeAnne Coryell, whose battered and strangled body was found floating in a pond. In a separate trial in 2001, Johnston was found guilty of beating and strangling Janice Nugent in her Tampa home. But in that case, the jury’s death recommendation was 11-1.

On the stand, Ray Lamar Johnston admits to killing LeAnne Coryell and illustrates with his hands how he strangled her. [Times (1999)]

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, who has been critical of some aspects of capital punishment, said he disagrees with the Florida Supreme Court’s interpretation, but that he is obligated to follow the law.

“These two defendants committed the worst of the worst of crimes and are the rare cases that deserve the death penalty,” Warren said. “Although I disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision, my duty is to follow the law as written, not as I want it to be. It would be inappropriate for me to invent my own rules of procedure when the Supreme Court has already said what the law requires.”

In reversing the Hurst decision, the Florida Supreme Court opined that a jury only needs to unanimously find that an aggravating factor qualifying the death penalty exists in a case.

In Deparvine and Johnston’s cases, the reasoning is that since the defendants each were found guilty of multiple murders, that alone is an aggravating factor that has been proven.

Adam Davis was sentenced to death on Dec. 17, 1999 for the first-degree murder of Vicki Robinson. Robinson was the mother of Davis’s then 15-year-old girlfriend, Valessa. [Florida Department of Corrections]

Two other Hillsborough cases remain pending, but there has yet to be any request to reimpose death sentences in either of them. One involves Adam Davis, whose jury was split 7-5 on the death penalty for the murder of his girlfriend’s mother in 1998.

The other is that of Dontae Morris, whose jury was split 10-2 for the murder of Derek Anderson, a killing that occurred a few weeks before Morris killed two Tampa police officers during a traffic stop in 2010. In the police killings, the jury was unanimous on the death penalty for Morris.

The jury voted 10-2 to recommend a sentence of death for Dontae Morris in the 2010 slaying of Derek Anderson, who was killed by a gunshot to the back while he was carrying his laundry to his mother's apartment. [Times (2010)]

Prosecutors in Pinellas and Pasco Counties have yet to ask for death sentences to be reimposed in any of their cases. But one Pinellas case, that of Genghis Kocaker, convicted of the 2004 murder of a Clearwater cab driver, is pending at the Supreme Court. The attorney general’s office has asked that his death sentence stand.

“(The court) should not require the prosecutors and citizens of Florida, not to mention the victims’ family, to go through the empty formality and enormous waste of resources of a new penalty phase based on that legally flawed and erroneous decision,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Marilyn Beccue wrote in a court paper. “Additionally, the new penalty phases required by the now-repudiated (Hurst) decision consume massive prosecutorial resources that are better spent in prosecuting other cases and in keeping citizens safe from other criminals.”

Whatever the court decides will likely come on the wings of two other cases, though.

One of them is a defendant named Bessman Okafor, sentenced to death for a 2012 Orange County murder by an 11-1 vote. He was about to have a new sentencing hearing when the Florida Supreme Court reversed itself.

Now, the state wants his death sentence to stand. His lawyers have noted that four justices who helped decide Hurst have since retired. They call the notion that a jury could be anything but unanimous in sentencing a defendant to death unconstitutional.

A group of 14 Florida law school professors and civil attorneys joined in a support for the defense side. They criticized the notion that the court could reverse a decision that was already final long ago.

“The notion that the Court’s duly issued opinion is not final and can be revisited years later can only cause uncertainty and unrest in the lives of many who count on the Court for stability and consistency,” they wrote. “If this Court need not follow its own rules, then what rules should litigants follow and professors teach?”

THE CASES

Here’s a roundup of what happened in each of the 17 Tampa Bay area cases affected by the Hurst decision.

Hillsborough County

  • Ray Lamar Johnston strangled two women in 1997 in Tampa. Jury vote: 12-0 in one case; 11-1 in the other. Prosecutors asked a judge to reimpose the death penalty in the latter case.
  • Adam Davis stabbed his girlfriend’s mother to death in 1998 in Carrollwood after injecting her with bleach. Jury vote: 7-5. A new sentencing hearing is set for later this year.
  • Pedro Hernandez-Alberto shot his two step-daughters to death in Apollo Beach in 1999. Jury vote: 10-2. He was re-sentenced to life in 2017.
  • Khalid Pasha stabbed his wife and stepdaughter to death in 2002 at an office park near Town 'N Country. Convicted and sentenced to death twice. Jury vote: 11-1. He was re-sentenced to life in 2017.
  • William Deparvine shot a man and a woman in 2003 after he met them to ask about buying a vintage pickup truck. Jury vote: 8-4. Prosecutors asked a judge to reimpose the death penalty.
  • Kenneth Jackson abducted a Seffner mother of three in 2007, then stabbed her to death. Jury vote: 11-1. He was re-sentenced to life in 2019.
  • Dontae Morris killed two Tampa police officers after killing another man weeks earlier. Jury vote: 12-0 for the officers; 10-2 for the civilian. The latter case remains pending.

Pinellas County

  • Jeffrey Muehleman beat and asphyxiated a 97-year-old man in 1983. Sentenced to death a second time in 2003. Jury vote: 10-2. There has been no recent activity in his case.
  • Troy Merck stabbed a man repeatedly in 1991 outside a St. Petersburg bar after he was asked not to lean on a car. Jury vote: 9-3. An appeal is pending in the state Supreme Court.
  • Harry Butler stabbed and strangled his former girlfriend in 1997 in Clearwater. Jury vote: 11-1. Re-sentenced to life in 2018.
  • Charles Peterson shot and killed a man during a robbery at a Big Lots store in St. Petersburg on Christmas Eve 1997. Jury vote: 8-4. Re-sentenced to life in 2017.
  • Genghis Kocaker stabbed a cab driver, bound him, then set fire to his car in Clearwater in 2004. Jury vote: 11-1. His case is pending before the state Supreme Court.
  • Richard Robards stabbed a Clearwater couple before attempting to steal their safe. Jury vote: 7-5. Re-sentenced to life in 2017.
  • John Hampton raped a woman in 2007 in Clearwater, slit her throat, then tried to destroy DNA evidence. Jury vote: 9-3. Re-sentenced to life in 2018 after a jury split 11-1 for death.
  • Ralph Wright was exonerated in 2017 after being sent to death row on a 7-5 jury vote.

Pasco County

  • Phillup Partin stabbed, beat and strangled a 16-year-old girl in 2002 in Port Richey. Jury vote: 9-3. He was proceeding toward a new sentencing hearing.
  • John Sexton raped and murdered Ann Parlato, 94, in her New Port Richey home in 2010 before lighting her body on fire. Jury vote: 10-2. He was previously set for a new sentencing hearing later this year.

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