What’s Ashley Moody’s problem with finding the truth? | Editorial
Attorney General should not block DNA testing of death row inmates.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. [times | (2019)]
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody. [times | (2019)] [ Times (2019) ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 22

Attorney General Ashley Moody is standing in the way of a DNA test for a death row inmate. The defense attorneys want the testing, the prosecutor on the case has agreed, and a judge has said go for it. But Moody seems more interested in winning a territorial spat than finding the truth. What’s the attorney general afraid of? Don’t facts matter when the state of Florida is poised to take a human life?

A jury convicted Henri P. Sireci in the stabbing death of Howard Poteet, an Orlando used car lot owner, on Dec. 3, 1975. For nearly two decades, Sireci, now 73, sought DNA testing. In May, Orange County’s top prosecutor, State Attorney Monique H. Worrell, agreed to grant the request. Worrell also is supporting DNA testing in the case of Tommy Zeigler, 76, who was convicted in the Christmas Eve 1975 killing of his wife, in-laws and another man at his family’s furniture store in Winter Garden. Though their cases are unrelated, the outcome of Sireci’s case could affect Zeigler’s. Both have lived on death row for 45 years. And both have sought advanced DNA testing at their own expense for at least a decade.

Even though local prosecutors agreed to support Sireci’s request for testing, Moody’s office intervened, arguing in September that the attorney general often takes the lead in post-conviction challenges. It urged Judge Wayne C. Wooten, who had already signed off on Sireci’s agreement with prosecutors, to withdraw his order. But Sireci’s lawyer argued the attorney general lacked authority, as the agreement was between Sireci and local prosecutors. And the judge rebuffed the legal reasoning behind Moody’s objection, saying the law allowed the attorney general to “assist” but that prosecutions were left to locally-elected prosecutors.

Now the attorney general is appealing Wooten’s decision, holding potential evidence in a murder case hostage over a jurisdictional dispute. Moody has created a farce by quibbling over turf when what matters here are the facts and whether to put this man to death. As retired Seminole County Judge O.H. Eaton Jr., a circuit court judge for 26 years and a death penalty expert who has no involvement in either case, summed up aptly: “Why would the attorney general of Florida want to complain about having a test that’s going to assure that we are not executing an innocent person? That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The tests are another step in the search for the truth. How could anyone in the courts system, especially the state’s top law enforcement officer, object to a legitimate attempt to ferret out who committed a murder? If anything, after this much time, there should be a sense of urgency in resolving these claims. Family members of the victims deserve to know if the right people were caught.

Florida’s 30 death row exonerations lead the nation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. Ironically, it’s cynical actions like Moody’s that over the years have helped sap public support for the death penalty, which polls show is the lowest in half a century. More Americans question how fairly the death penalty is applied; nearly eight in 10 Americans also fear that an innocent person could be put to death.

The ultimate punishment deserves the ultimate certainty. The attorney general should uphold that standard. She certainly should not be maneuvering against fellow prosecutors to keep facts from the case.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.