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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Florida: House panel approves death penalty fix

Florida's death chamber
Florida's death chamber
Florida is 1 step closer to being able to sentence people to death.

The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Wednesday unanimously passed a bill that would require unanimous jury recommendations before defendants could be sentenced to death. A similar bill in a Senate committee passed last week.

Legislation this year is necessary to reinstate Florida's death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court last year found unconstitutional a law that would have required at least 10 of 12 jurors to recommend death.

That short-lived law was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the previous law, which required only a majority decision from a jury in order to recommend the death penalty. That decision came in the middle of last year's legislative session, so legislators tried a quick fix.

Right now, Florida technically does not have the death penalty. This has caused a backlog of cases as prosecutors try to delay trials until the death penalty in Florida is fixed.

"We have 50 cases ready to be tried in the state of Florida," said Buddy Jacobs, a lobbyist who works for state prosecutors. "This is a real crisis."

In South Florida, the death penalty snafu most recently surfaced in the ongoing murder trial of Fidel Lopez, a Sunrise man accused of disemboweling his girlfriend in 2015. Because of the current status of the law, the judge in that case barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. An appeals court allowed prosecutors to at least make an argument for the death penalty, putting the trial on hold temporarily.

The House bill, filed by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, would make the jury recommendation portion of Florida's death penalty law the same as the other 27 states that require a unanimous jury recommendation of death to impose the death penalty. 3 other states have death penalties imposed by judges without jury recommendations. The other 19 states have no death penalty.

Both the Senate and House versions of the bill face one more committee hearing next week. Assuming they pass, which is likely given the unanimous votes in the 1st Senate and House committee hearings, the bills will then be ready for floor votes when the legislative session begins on March 7.

Although House Democrats on the Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted for the bill, they expressed some reservations. According to anti-death penalty advocates who spoke before the committee, multiple studies that have shown the death penalty is generally imposed more often for minorities who commit the same offense under similar circumstances as white criminals.

"I would hope some of the comments that have been made, such as [a Florida legislative policy] study ... would be in place by the time the bill comes to the floor," said state Rep. Sharon Prichett, D-Miami Gardens.

Without a study weighing any inherent bias in Florida's death penalty, Pritchett said she would probably not support the bill when it is up for a vote before the full House, where the bill is likely to pass.

Source: Sun Sentinel, February 16, 2017

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