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Mother's faith prevails: Son acquitted in retrial

Joaquin Martinez, a Spanish citizen who spent three years on Florida's death row, is acquitted of two murder counts during a retrial watched by Spain.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 7, 2001


Joaquin Martinez, a Spanish citizen who spent three years on Florida's death row, is acquitted of two murder counts during a retrial watched by Spain.

TAMPA -- He spent three years on Florida's death row for killing a couple in their home near Tampa in 1995.

But Wednesday, 30-year-old Joaquin Martinez became a free man.

A jury took two hours to acquit the Spanish citizen of two counts of first-degree murder during a retrial that was watched closely by the Spanish media, the king of Spain and the pope.

After he was declared not guilty, Martinez's lips quivered, and he cried into his attorneys' shoulders.

Martinez's mother, Sara Martinez, sobbed. His family and some members of the Spanish media applauded and cheered. He was then led back into a holding cell for processing. As he waited, he turned to his attorney, Peter Raben.

"Thank you for giving me my life back," he told Raben.

Martinez was sentenced to death in 1997 for the murders of Douglas Lawson and his girlfriend, Sherrie McCoy-Ward, in their home in Clair Mel, east of Tampa. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial because a detective in the first trial improperly told the jury he thought that Martinez was guilty and a prosecutor repeated the statement in closing arguments.

The Spanish media in Miami, where Martinez's family lives, and in Spain, where Martinez was born, devoured the story. Television reporters flew in from Spain for the retrial, the pope spoke out against the death penalty and Sara Martinez met with the king of Spain. Hundreds of thousands of dollars was raised to pay for Martinez's defense. The family also hired Tampa jury consultant Harvey Moore.

"To go from death row to freedom is just mind-numbing," Moore said. "It's unbelievable."

Raben argued that prosecutors did not have any evidence against Martinez. No fingerprints or DNA was ever found.

"I was not surprised," Raben said of the verdict. "We had a lot of compelling defense evidence."

Jurors could not be reached for comment.

"Nobody should criticize the jury," said prosecutor Chris Watson. "The job is to see if we proved it, and this trial, this month, we didn't prove it."

Lawson and McCoy-Ward were both 26 when they died in October 1995. Lawson was shot several times with a 9mm pistol; McCoy-Ward was shot and stabbed more than 20 times as she tried to reach the front door to escape.

Lawson and Martinez once worked together at a warehouse, and prosecutors contended that Martinez went to the couple's house to buy marijuana.

Because of the passage of time, prosecutors were not able to call on the same witnesses in the retrial.

One died, another one refused to cooperate and another, Martinez's ex-wife, Sloane Martinez, essentially changed her story after testifying against Martinez during the first trial.

Sloane Martinez, portrayed by the defense in the first trial as a vengeful ex-wife, led authorities to Martinez. She helped them secretly tape conversations in which Martinez supposedly made incriminating statements. Later, however, she went on Spanish radio and television denying that her ex-husband ever admitted the killings.

The first jury convicted Martinez after listening to the tape and reading a transcript of it. It was revealed in this trial that the transcript was prepared by Lawson's father, William Lawson. He was the evidence manager for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

But for the retrial, Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett ruled the tape inaudible. A deputy was allowed to read only from parts of the transcript.

An hour into deliberations, the jury asked for more information about the tape, but Padgett told them the tape was not in evidence.

At 2:15 p.m., they had a verdict, which was broadcast live in Spain.

The victims' families, distraught over the outcome and the outburst by Martinez's family, quickly left the courtroom.

"We accept the verdict from the jury because that's the law of our land," said Alice Lawson, Douglas' aunt. "But we are very disappointed because we absolutely believe that he is guilty."

Although acquitted, Martinez didn't walk out of jail Wednesday. He was placed in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service because he was an alien who had been charged with a crime. Lawyers were working late Wednesday to speed through the paperwork required for his release. His family said Martinez plans to return to Spain.

Martinez's relatives exulted outside the courthouse, giving interviews to the Spanish media here and in Spain for three hours.

"I always said my son is innocent," Sara Martinez said to Raben, Moore and Dave Parry, another Martinez attorney. "But nobody believed me but you. Thank you for saving my son."

Sara Martinez wore the same outfit and the same hairdo she had when she met with the king of Spain in Miami in April to seek help for her son.

"I had a good feeling," she said. "He said he would fight for us."

Recent coverage

Skeins of murder trial entangle many (June 5, 2001)

Defense attacks ex-wife's story of a confession (May 31, 2001)

Suspect in slayings won't face death penalty (May 30, 2001)

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