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Death row inmate from Hillsborough gets new trial

The case involves a man convicted of killing a couple in their rented house in Clair Mel.

By LARRY DOUGHERTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


TAMPA -- The Florida Supreme Court granted a new trial Thursday to a death row inmate from Hillsborough County, saying a detective's personal opinion about the man's guilt might have prejudiced the jury.

The case involved Joaquin Jose Martinez, 29, who was found guilty in 1997 of killing a couple in their rented house in Clair Mel two years earlier.

When lead state prosecutor Nick Cox asked a detective at trial whether he thought Martinez was guilty, the detective replied, "There was no doubt that he did it." Defense attorneys had objected, but Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett overruled them, the opinion states.

In his closing argument, Cox repeated the detective's opinion, saying that Martinez "was arrested because nobody had a doubt that he was guilty."

In vacating Martinez's sentence of death and granting him a new trial, the Supreme Court noted that "it was ultimately for the jury to decide whether the statements made by Martinez . . . established his guilt . . .

"We find that the prejudice flowing from the erroneous admission of this testimony was compounded by the state's closing argument," the opinion said. ". . . the prosecutor engaged in impermissible bolstering of the state's case by asserting the superior knowledge and certainty of the government's agents."

Cox declined to comment Thursday. He now is on the staff of the state Attorney General's Office.

Bob Fraser, an attorney who helped defend Martinez at trial, said Thursday he was surprised by the decision.

"Good for Joaquin," Fraser said, adding that he thought the case "was pretty cleanly tried" and that Cox was "a stand-up guy."

Peter Raben, Martinez's appellate attorney, told the Associated Press that Martinez's parents, who live in North Miami Beach, "thank God" for the decision.

It is expected that Martinez will be held in jail to await his new trial. Martinez is a native of Spain, and his case has become a cause celebre among death-penalty opponents there.

Martinez was convicted of the murders of Douglas Lawson, who was shot several times, and Lawson's girlfriend, Sherrie McCoy-Ward, who was shot once and stabbed more than 20 times. There was no physical evidence linking Martinez to the killings.

But police said Martinez implicated himself in comments he made in a secretly recorded call to his ex-wife.

-- Larry Dougherty can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or dougherty@sptimes.com

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