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Suspect in slayings won't face death penalty

The double-murder case involving a Spanish suspect has stirred interest in Spain, where there is no death penalty.

[AP photo]
Joaquin Martinez of Spain waits for the start of jury selection Tuesday in the Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa.

© St. Petersburg Times,
published May 30, 2001

TAMPA -- Before the murder trial of Joaquin Martinez began Tuesday, prosecutor Chris Watson walked over to defense attorneys and whispered the news:

Prosecutors would not seek the death penalty after all.

Martinez's parents began crying after a Spanish translator told them what had happened, attorney David Parry said. Martinez, sitting at the defense table in a double-breasted gray suit, began to breathe more easily, his attorney said.

Prosecutors revealed their decision Tuesday as lawyers began selecting jurors to decide whether Martinez, 30, killed a young couple in their home in 1995.

The case became a national cause in Spain after Martinez, a Spanish citizen living in Tampa, was first convicted of the double murder in 1997. A judge sentenced Martinez to death for one of the murders, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned the convictions last year.

Tuesday, about 25 Spanish-speaking journalists filled the courtroom of Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett to cover the case. The Spanish ambassador and several Spanish senators are expected in court today. Stories in the Spanish press about Martinez's conviction have cited the case as an example of how the U.S. justice system can kill an innocent man.

The Madrid Bar Association filed a brief comparing the case to the caning of American Michael Fay in Singapore in 1994 for vandalism. The king of Spain and Pope John Paul II appealed for U.S. officials to spare Martinez's life. In Spain, which does not have a death penalty, hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to finance Martinez's defense team, which includes two criminal defense attorneys and a jury consultant.

"They arrested the wrong guy, and if they would have convicted him, they would have electrocuted the wrong guy," said Peter Raben, one of Martinez's attorneys.

Prosecutors did not tell the defense team why they did not seek the death penalty, "but we are pleased by it," Raben said.

His parents were joyous. "We are seeing a small light at the end of tunnel," his mother, Sara Martinez, said through a translator.

State Attorney Mark Ober declined to explain his decision Tuesday, citing the ongoing trial.

If convicted of first-degree murder, Martinez would spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Authorities say Martinez shot Douglas Lawson, the son of a Hillsborough Sheriff's Office employee, and shot and stabbed Sherrie McCoy-Ward, a dancer at the Mons Venus nightclub, at least 20 times in their secluded home in Clair Mel.

Investigators found Martinez's pager number in the couple's house and after calling it, Martinez's ex-wife told authorities that he had spoken about killing someone. Detectives secretly tape-recorded the couple's conversations and then arrested Martinez after he had made statements that deputies considered incriminating.

Padgett threw out the tapes as inaudible last week, which means the case against Martinez could rest on the testimony of his ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend. His former wife told the Spanish news agency Efe last year that she now wants to do everything she can to help her ex-husband.

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