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Lawyers slam study on death sentences


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- A widely published study alleging that two-thirds of all death penalty sentences were riddled with serious mistakes is misleading and wrong, say lawyers who work for Gov. Jeb Bush.

In a memo written this week, Bush's death penalty experts say the study has serious flaws that make it appear that Florida put the wrong people on death row.

"In 64 of 64 cases (included in the study), Florida convicted the right man for the right crime," insist lawyers Reg Brown and Marty McDonnell.

The study found the Florida cases "rife with error" even though none of them was ultimately resolved with an innocent verdict, pardon or dismissal of the murder charges.

Brown said the study uses the word "error" to describe cases where no error actually occurred, including those where the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that changed the law applied at the time of trial.

"To call that error in any common sense is wrong," Brown said. "To call it error when you convicted the right person, is wrong."

In more than a third of the 64 Florida cases cited by the study, the death penalty was reimposed after an initial court decision overturned the original death penalty. In other cases, the state agreed to accept a plea with a life sentence to spare the families of victims the trauma of additional court proceedings.

"These cases should not be included in a true "error rate' analysis, and if factored out, would show far less "error' in post-conviction cases than the study suggests," the lawyers wrote. In one Florida case, the study indicates that Mauricio Beltran-Lopez was given a lesser sentence because of "errors" in the case. In fact, prosecutors agreed to a life sentence because the two surviving daughters who witnessed the killing of their parents were unwilling to endure the mental anguish of a new trial, the governor's staff says.

The study also characterized as error-filled cases 17 situations where a new sentencing hearing was required after the U.S. Supreme Court changed the law in death penalty cases.

"These cases are thus not cases rife with error in any reasonable sense of the word," Brown and McDonnell said.

In another Florida case, the authors of the study suggest that inmate William Lee Thompson had his death sentence overturned, when he remains to this day on death row.

Thompson was convicted of sexually assaulting a young woman and beating her to death in 1976 in Dade County.

In a written response to the criticism, Columbia professor James Liebman admitting making some errors but said he has rechecked his data and determined that he actually undercounted the number of Florida cases that were reversed.

Saying he "modestly" understated the number of capital cases overturned in Florida, Liebman said his recount indicates that "incompetent lawyering appears to be a somewhat more serious problem in Florida than we had previously noted."

The recount and mistakes he has now corrected does not change his conclusion that Florida's system of punishing capital offenses is "fraught with error," Liebman concluded.

Brown has asked Liebman to release the underlying data he relied on for his study and says the overall accuracy of the allegations made in the study cannot be determined until all of the information is made available.

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