||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
Guilt or Innocence Was Not Important as Long as Someone Was Killed
By: Dale S. Recinella
The recent release of the 133rd person to be freed from America’s death rows for innocence brings back my nightmares
about witnessing the execution of a man who was certainly innocent.
What no one in the press or the courts wanted to discuss at that time was the fact that his case may well have been Florida's version of the Herrera
case in Texas. In the Texas case, the courts had allowed a man to be executed even though another man had confessed to the murder--all because procedural
rules prevented a hearing on the new evidence. The U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the execution to proceed and Herrera was killed by the State of Texas.
The dissenting opinion in Herrera said, "The execution of a man who can show he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder."
The majority opinion in Herrera said clemency by the governor, not the appeals courts, is supposed to take care of problems of factual innocence.
Clemency? What's clemency?
Florida may have once had a functioning clemency system in death cases. Six cases of clemency in death cases were granted from 1976 until 1983.
In two such cases, the reason for clemency was the possibility of innocence: Alford (1979) and Rutledge (1983). But Florida has not had a death
sentence commuted to life through clemency since 1983.
That's back when Governor Graham was actually looking at cases thoroughly before signing death warrants. He considered it the governor’s job to
commute death sentences to life imprisonment if there was a possibility of innocence. The law and the U.S. Supreme Court say that is the governor’s
job. That's how clemency is supposed to work.
The story goes, however, that the press lambasted Graham for taking his clemency responsibilities seriously and branded him as "Governor Jell-o".
No Florida Governor has granted clemency in a death case since then. Granting clemency for a death row inmate, even if it is because he is innocent, is political suicide for a governor in the south.
The innocent man whom I watched be killed had three beautiful daughters in their twenties. They begged the governor to grant clemency, to commute
the sentence to life imprisonment. There were many reasons that such an appeal should have been considered even if the man was guilty.
• He was a decorated Vietnam Veteran who returned with PTSD and Agent
• He was a single parent raising his children by working as a carpenter and,
since coming to death row almost twenty years earlier, he had continued
as the parental
figure in his daughters' lives through mail and visits.
• Above and beyond all that, his death sentence was handed down by a jury
vote of 7 to 5. One vote different and he would have been given a life
sentence! (Florida is the only death penalty state in the U.S. that does not
require a unanimous jury to impose death.)
But there was an even more compelling reason for clemency in that case. There was reason to be concerned that someone else committed the crime. There were
sworn affidavits that the severely mentally ill person who was the state's star prosecution witness at the trial had confessed to others that she had done it.
Even though no additional delay would have been expected by investigating that possibility, the Florida Supreme Court refused to allow an evidentiary
hearing to find out the truth. The lone dissent by Justice Anstead was chilling and is quoted in full as follows:
Supreme Court of Florida No. SC06-18
ANSTEAD, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part.
I concur in the majority opinion in all respects with the exception of its affirming the denial of an evidentiary hearing on the appellant’s claim of
newly discovered evidence and his request for discovery related to that claim. There can hardly be a more serious claim relating to a defendant’s guilt
or innocence than a claim that someone else has confessed to the crime for which the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death. With the possible
exception of DNA evidence, the confession of another person raises the most compelling and fundamental doubt about a prior determination of guilt. Here,
we have not only a claim that someone else has confessed, but we have sworn testimony attesting to its validity.
Under our post conviction rules we must accept [the condemned’s] claim as true and direct an evidentiary hearing on its validity unless the record
conclusively demonstrates that the claim is not valid. See Fla. R. Crim. P. 3.850-3.851. There is a dramatic, and obviously substantial, difference
between approving an outcome determined by a trial court based on a contested hearing where all of the evidence and the testimony of witnesses is
thoroughly scrutinized, compared to a summary conclusion on a cold record that someone else’s confession to the crime could not possibly make a
difference to the determinations that the defendant alone was guilty of this crime and that he was deserving of the death penalty. On this record,
we can hardly evaluate the credibility and weight of the sworn evidence that someone else may have committed this crime. That is the purpose for
which an evidentiary hearing before the trier of fact, i.e., the trial court, is specifically designed. We should not summarily brush aside such
a serious claim when we cannot know how credible a case may be put before the trial court.
The majority’s ruling on the discovery issue poses similar, if not greater concerns, because it suggests that no matter what [the mentally ill witness’s]
treatment records reveal, including presumably her possible admission of direct involvement in the murder, it would have made no difference to the jury’s
assessment of [the condemned man’s] guilt or any juror’s vote for death.
It is particularly disturbing that the majority would assert with unjustified certainty that “there is no probability that this evidence would result in
imposition of a sentence less than death on retrial.” The majority has failed to consider that even without this new and substantial evidence of
[the mentally ill witness’s] involvement in the crime, [the] jury recommended death by the narrowest of margins, seven to five, only one vote away from a sentence of life.
It is also difficult to reconcile the majority’s summary rejection of an evidentiary hearing when we know that … It would not be unreasonable to expect that
[because of other cases before the U.S. Supreme Court] his pending execution would be stayed for several months, during which a proper evidentiary hearing
could be conducted.
The man was executed without any investigation by the courts into whether he was in fact innocent. There was no investigation into the sworn affidavits
that the state’s star witness had confessed to the crime.
To six of the seven justices on the Florida Supreme Court, all that mattered was making sure someone was killed for the crime.
Making sure that Florida killed a guilty person and not an innocent one? That did not matter so much. That was not really very important at all.
God forgive us all.
© 2009 Dale S. Recinella
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
I Was In Prison
News & Updates
This ezine is targeted for people involved in prison ministry or in stopping the death penalty, we think you will find helpful information for people who are undecided about capital punishment, for those who have never experienced the inside of a jail or prison, and for those who feel called to participate through prayer and adoration.
Your name and information will never be used or shared with anyone. We promise!
Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed