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Florida Supreme Court lets stand dozens of death sentences, including 11 from the First Coast
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Florida Supreme Court lets stand dozens of death sentences, including 11 from the First Coast

Florida Supreme Court lets stand dozens of death sentences, including 11 from the First Coast
Photo Credit: Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Florida Supreme Court lets stand dozens of death sentences, including 11 from the First Coast

Almost a dozen men sentenced to death because of crimes committed on the First Coast have had those penalties upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.

The Court denied appeals relating to sentences for 30 cases in the past three days- including nine from Duval, one from Clay, and one from St. Johns- following their latest ruling that continues to refine Florida’s death penalty sentencing process. 

This all started in early 2016, when the US Supreme Court ruled Florida’s death penalty sentencing scheme unconstitutional through the Hurst case. At the time, the ruling was based on the fact that juries recommended a sentence, but were only advisory, and the judge issued the final decision. The state legislature passed a new law to address that, but then the Florida Supreme Court struck that down, saying a unanimous jury must now be required in order to impose the death penalty. 

That ruling, which came in October 2016, left open the question of what would happen with inmates on death row who had been sent there by a non-unanimous vote. That became more clear at the end of 2016. 

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in December 2016 that any death penalty imposed by a non-unanimous jury that became final before the 2002 Supreme Court case known as Ring would stand, because it was based on the understanding of the law at the time. In Ring, the High Court ruled Arizona’s death penalty sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, and while Florida’s law was discussed, there was nothing explicitly ordered for the state at the time. In the Hurst ruling, the Supreme Court determined Ring did, in fact, apply to Florida- hence the creation of that case as the dividing line. Subsequently, as appeals have been coming before the state’s high court, non-unanimous death sentences imposed and finalized after Ring have been sent for a new sentencing phase, while those pre-Ring have stood. 

The latest wrinkle that led the Florida Supreme Court to put pending appeals on hold was Hitchcock. In this case, the defendant argued that Hurst meant his non-unanimous death sentence was unconstitutional under both Florida and the US Constitution, even though it was finalized in 2000. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in August 2017 that they had consistently upheld the standard they had put in place, and as such, the defendant was not entitled to a new sentencing phase. 

With Hitchcock settled, in the last three days alone the Florida Supreme Court has denied appeals from 30 death row inmates. Eleven of those inmates are from the First Coast. 

Clay County 

Donald Bradley- sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of Jack Jones. He was also convicted of burglary in connection to this crime. The wife of Jones propositioned Bradley to intimidate and assault him but make it look like a home invasion, in response to an affair Jones was having with a teen girl. Bradley got two brothers- Brian and Patrick McWhite- to help, telling them it would be an assault. Bradley’s assault with a “war stick” and gun left Jones with injuries he ultimately died from. The brothers and Jones’ wife, Linda, were arrested as well. The jury recommended death for Bradley 10-2. 

St. Johns County 

John Marquard- sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Stacy Willets. He was also convicted of armed robbery in connection to this crime. Marquard, Willets, and Mike Abshire drove from North Carolina to Florida, where they were all planning to move. The two men had talked about killing Willet for her car and money before leaving North Carolina, and while stopped in South Carolina, Marquard said he was going to kill her. In St. Augustine, the men lured Willet into the woods by telling her she was invited to a party, and ultimately Marquard stabbed her and pushed her face into a puddle until she stopped breathing. The two then tried to sever her head from her body. Abshire was also convicted and was sentenced to life. The jury recommended death for Marquard by 12-0 

Duval County 

Pressley Alston- sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of James Lee Coon. He was convicted of other crimes in connection to this, including robbery with a deadly weapon, kidnapping, and more. Coon was last seen after visiting his grandmother at a Jacksonville hospital. Alston and his half-brother, Dee Ellison, were both arrested, and Alston confessed, saying they had planned a robbery a few days prior, but couldn’t find anyone to rob. A day later, they saw Coon, got in his car, took his watch and cash, and then fatally shot him. The jury recommended death for Alston 9-3. 

Marvin Jones- sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Monique Stow. He was also convicted of the attempted murder of Ezra Stow in connection to this crime. Jones bought a used car from Ezra Stow and wrote a check for the vehicle and repairs, knowing it would bounce. Stow’s daughter, Monique, called Jones to arrange payment, and Jones agreed to come by to give the money. Instead, he fatally shot Monique while she was in the restroom, and shot Stow when he reached for his own gun. The jury recommended death for Jones by 9-3. 

Jason Stephens- sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of 3-year-old Robert Sparrow III. He was also convicted of kidnapping, several counts of armed robbery, and other charges in connection to this crime. Stephens and several accomplices, including Horace Cummings and others who were never apprehended, broke in to the home of a man to steal money and marijuana. The toddler and many other people were in the home at the time, and they were held hostage by Stephens and his accomplices. When they left, Stephens took the toddler as “insurance” and left him in a car in a sunny area. He was found dead hours later. The medical examiner testified the toddler died from asphyxiation, but could not rule out hyperthermia. The jury recommended death for Stephens by 9-3. 

Ronald Clark Jr.- sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of Ronald Willis. He was also convicted of armed robbery in connection to this crime. Clark and another man, John Hatch, were hitchhiking, when Willis pulled over to pick them up. Clark ordered Willis to pull over, and then fatally shot Willis. The men dumped the victim’s body in a ditch, used his stolen car to drive around doing things through the night, and then retrieved the body, weighted it, and dumped it in the water off the Nassau County Sound Bridge. Hatch was caught in Nassau County and Clark was caught in South Carolina. The jury recommended death for Clark by 11-1. 

Etheria Jackson- sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of Linton Moody. Moody and his brother owned a furniture shop, and he had gone to Jackson’s home to get a payment for a washing machine from Jackson’s live-in girlfriend. Jackson assaulted Moody, had his girlfriend take Moody’s wallet and keys, choked him unconscious, hit him, and stabbed him multiple times. Jackson and his girlfriend hid the body in carpet and put that in the victim’s vehicle. Some of the stolen money was used to buy cocaine. The jury recommended death for Jackson by 7-5. 

Gregory Kokal- sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of Jeffrey Russell. Kokal and William O’Kelly picked up Russell, who was hitchhiking, and drove to a Jacksonville Beach park where they beat Russell with a pool cue and robbed him. Russell was then fatally shot. The jury recommended death for Kokal by 12-0. 

William Sweet- sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of 13-year-old Felicia Bryant. Sweet was also convicted of attempted murder and armed burglary in connection to this crime. Sweet is one of three men who had robbed and physically accosted a woman in her apartment, and the other two men had been identified. The victim asked a neighbor if her two daughters- including Felicia- could stay with her, and the neighbor agreed. The other daughter heard a loud kick overnight. She later saw someone pulling on the screen in the living room, and ultimately, they all saw Sweet outside. They alerted the girls’ mother, who came over, but as they all attempted to leave, Sweet forced his way in and opened fire, hitting the initial victim and Felicia. The jury recommended death for Sweet by 10-2. 

Steven Taylor- sentenced to death for the 1990 murder of Alice Vest. Taylor was also convicted of burglary and sexual battery in connection to this crime. Vest’s body was found in her bedroom, and the phone line to her home had been severed. She had been sexually assault, stabbed about 20 times with a knife and scissors, strangled, and hit with a metal bar and candlestick, among other things. Taylor and Gerald Murray were arrested for the crime, which Taylor said was a burglary gone badly. The jury recommended death for Taylor by 10-2. 

William Thomas- sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Rachel Thomas, his wife. Thomas was also convicted of burglary and kidnapping in connection to this crime. Thomas planned to kidnap and kill his wife to avoid paying his portion of their impending divorce settlement. He beat her and tied her up and took her from the scene by vehicle, and she was never seen again. A friend of Thomas, Douglas Schraud, was involved in the kidnapping and was convicted. Thomas also received a life sentence for the murder of his mother, Elsie Thomas, with the motive to keep her from talking to police about his wife’s murder. The jury recommended death for Thomas by 11-1.

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  • A North Carolina sheriff stands accused of urging the murder of a former deputy who had a recording of him using racially offensive language, authorities say. Granville County Sheriff Brindell Wilkins was indicted Monday on two counts of felony obstruction of justice, according to court records. Wilkins is accused of trying to get another man to kill former Deputy Joshua Freeman, who he believed was going to expose his racist talk. >> Read more trending news  Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who is prosecuting the case, said Wilkins' Aug. 12, 2014, phone conversation with the 'well-known' man who threatened Joshua Freeman's life was caught on tape, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh. Lorrin Freeman and Joshua Freeman are not related. Joshua Freeman worked for the Sheriff's Office from November 2011 to August 2014 but was let go in the days leading up to Wilkins' alleged crimes, WRAL in Raleigh reported. Wilkins, who was reelected in 2018 for a third four-year term, is accused of advising the unnamed man to kill Joshua Freeman, 'whom the defendant knew to have expressed his intention to soon publicly reveal a purported audio recording of the sheriff using racially offensive language to authorities in Raleigh,' the indictment states. The court records do not detail what Wilkins is alleged to have said, or what ultimately happened to the recording of his words. The indictment against the sheriff alleges Wilkins encouraged the man to 'take care of it' and said, 'The only way you gonna stop him is kill him.' According to the indictment, Wilkins counseled the would-be gunman on how to kill Joshua Freeman in a way to avoid getting caught. He offered two tips, according to the document: Get rid of the murder weapon and keep quiet. 'You ain't got the weapon, you ain't got nothing to go on,' Wilkins allegedly told the man, the court records allege. 'The only way we find out these murder things is people talk. You can't tell nobody nothin', not a thing.' Wilkins and the individual discussed a time in which to kill Joshua Freeman and a location that would ensure it would be Wilkins' own Granville County Sheriff's Office investigators who would get the case, the indictment says. Wilkins assured the man he would not tell investigators of his prior knowledge of the crime. The indictment accuses Wilkins of failing to prevent harm to Joshua Freeman or warn him of the 'credible threat' to his life. It alleges the sheriff also failed to seize the gun the other man planned to use, despite the person showing him the weapon at one point. 'The defendant failed to properly execute his duties because of his personal animosity towards Joshua Freeman,' the indictment states. Joshua Freeman was never harmed, though the indictment offers no indication why the alleged plot failed. Wilkins went before a magistrate Monday and was released on $20,000 unsecured bond. Court records show he was ordered to have no contact with anyone named in the indictment. He was also ordered to surrender his passport, if he has one. Read the indictment against Granville County Sheriff Brindell Wilkins below.  Brindell Wilkins Indictment by National Content Desk on Scribd 'No one is above the law,' Lorrin Freeman said Monday, according to WRAL. 'It is always painful when someone who has the public trust faces these types of allegations for voters who put them in that place. 'Any time you have someone who is sworn to uphold the public trust, to protect their community, to investigate and report crimes, allegedly engage in this type of conduct, it is something that needs to be brought to justice, and so we will continue to follow the evidence in this case.' Several followers of Wilkins' public Facebook page offered support in the wake of the indictment. 'You will always have our support,' one woman wrote. 'Praying for you and your family.' 'Our friendship goes back 30 years or more and you have always been a great friend to me,' another woman wrote. 'You were there for me many times. I believe in you and you have my support, always.' Lorrin Freeman said Wake County is handling the case because Mike Waters, her counterpart in Granville County, could potentially become an important witness at trial. Waters, who addressed the case in a statement on his office's Facebook page, wrote to Lorrin Freeman in November to ask her to look into the case. Watch Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman discuss the case below, courtesy of the News & Observer. WRAL reported that Joshua Freeman, who Waters represented in 2014 while in private practice, gave the future prosecutor the tape recording of Wilkins' conversation with the man who talked of killing the former deputy. It was not clear Friday how Freeman obtained the recording. Waters said he immediately turned the tape over to the FBI. The Washington Post reported that Waters met with North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agents about the recording in January 2017, but nothing happened. 'Quite frankly, it did not get to the top of their investigative list,' Lorrin Freeman told WRAL about SBI agents. Waters gave the recording to a different SBI agent in October 2018, but still, no investigation was initiated, the Post reported. That is when Waters turned to Lorrin Freeman to initiate a probe into the sheriff. She agreed. 'I have reviewed this recording,' Lorrin Freeman wrote to SBI agents, according to the Post. 'It contains a conversation between two individuals, one of whom appears to be the Granville County sheriff, about a former deputy sheriff and culminates in a discussion about committing a homicide.' In his Facebook statement, Waters expressed frustration at the amount of time it took to get an investigation going. 'At all times since (turning over the recording), I have provided assistance to investigators, and once Ms. Freeman opened a criminal investigation, have urged that this matter be given investigative priority,' Waters wrote. 'I understand it is a matter of great importance to the people of Granville County, and it has been a point of frustration that the investigative process has not been more expeditious.' He wrote that any allegations of wrongdoing by law enforcement are troubling, particularly when they involve a sheriff elected by the community. 'Over the next few months, my office will continue to lend assistance to the ongoing investigation as requested, while we continue to do our daily work of protecting victims, prosecuting those who violate the law and seeing that justice is administered,' Waters said. WRAL reported Lorrin Freeman said she worked to obtain obstruction charges against Wilkins because obstruction would be easier to prove in the five-year old case than solicitation of murder or conspiracy. The Granville County Board of Commissioners met Tuesday to discuss the indictment, but County Attorney Jim Wrenn said the board has no authority to remove Wilkins, an elected official, from office as his criminal case winds its way through the court system, WRAL reported. Lorrin Freeman confirmed that fact to the News & Observer. 'Technically, he can continue to serve if he chooses, until convicted,' Freeman told the newspaper. Spectrum News' Charlotte bureau reported that Wilkins has indicated he will not step down. Wrenn said he is considering trying to get Wilkins out of office through the courts but wants to hear the recording himself before making that decision. Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly, said state law has a provision allowing a judge to suspend a sheriff and allow a county commission to appoint a temporary replacement pending the outcome of a criminal case. 'The statute is there to allow removal of sheriff,' Cohen told Spectrum News. 'One of six causes is, in fact, conviction of felony. Others are some of the things in his indictment, like willful misconduct, corruption, willful neglect or refusal to perform duties of his office. Some of them match the charges in his indictment.' The News & Observer reported that the probe into Wilkins' alleged actions against Joshua Freeman has led to investigations of the Granville County Sheriff's Office's accounting practices, as well as the operations of its drug unit. Freeman was a member of the drug unit when he was with the agency. 'Part of this investigation has centered on why this sort of conversation would have occurred, what the underlying motivation would have been,' Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday, according to the newspaper. 'Additional information has come to light regarding operations and accounting practices of the Granville County narcotics interdiction team.' Those investigations remain ongoing.
  • President Donald Trump called reports that a U.S. intelligence official filed a whistleblower complaint against him last month 'a ridiculous story' while speaking Friday to reporters in the Oval Office. >> Read more trending news  According to the Washington Post, the president made an unspecified 'promise' to an unidentified foreign leader that concerned the intelligence official. The official filed a complaint Aug. 12, two anonymous former U.S. officials told the newspaper, though lawmakers said Thursday they had yet to see the complaint. The intelligence community's inspector general, Michael Atkinson, appeared before the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors Thursday but declined, under administration orders, to reveal the substance of the complaint. Update 7:40 p.m. EDT Sept. 20: Former Vice President Joe Biden has released a statement on the whistleblower's complaint against President Trump. In it, Biden describes Trump's alleged behavior as 'abhorrent' and calls on him to release a full transcript of the call 'so that the American people can be judged for themselves.' The entire statement reads: Update 4:40 p.m. EDT Sept 20: The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the son of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, citing unidentified people familiar with the matter. The Journal reported Trump asked Zelensky to work with Rudy Giuliani to determine whether Biden 'worked to shield from investigation a Ukrainian gas company with ties to his son, Hunter Biden.'  Trump made the request about eight times during a phone call in July, according to the Journal. Trump was asked Friday if be brought up Biden in the call with Zelenskiy, and he answered, 'It doesn't matter what I discussed.' But then he used the moment to urge the media 'to look into' Biden's background with Ukraine. Trump and Zelenskiy are to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations next week. Update 1 p.m. EDT Sept. 20: President Donald Trump told reporters Friday that the person behind the complaint filed against him was a 'partisan whistleblower' who 'shouldn't even have information,' though he added that he did not know the person's identity. 'I don't even know exactly who you're talking about,' Trump said. 'I don't know the identity of the whistleblower. I just hear it's a partisan person, meaning it comes out from another party.' Trump said Friday that he's spoken with several world leaders and that his conversations with them were 'always appropriate.' Details surrounding the complaint remained unclear Friday afternoon, though The Washington Post and The New York Times reported at least some of the allegations centered on Ukraine. Both newspapers cited unidentified sources. Asked if he knew if the whistleblower's complaint centered on a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, the president responded 'I really don't know' but continued to insist any phone call he made with a head of state was 'perfectly fine and respectful.' Update 9:50 p.m. EDT Sept. 19: The whistleblower complaint against Donald Trump centers around Ukraine, two anonymous sources confirmed to The Washington Post Thursday evening. The New York Times and ABC News are also citing anonymous sources, saying the complaint involves Ukraine. It's not clear exactly how Ukraine fits into the allegations. However, Trump spoke on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, the Post reported. That call was already under investigation by House Democrats, who are looking into whether Trump and his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, tried to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping with Trump's re-election campaign, according to The Post. Update 1:45 p.m. EDT Sept. 19:  The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee suggested Thursday that lawmakers could ask a judge to compel White House officials to share with Congress a whistleblower complaint allegedly filed last month against Trump. The complaint was filed Aug. 12 and involved an undisclosed 'promise' made by the president to an unidentified foreign leader, CNN reported Atkinson declined to share details of the complaint during a closed meeting of the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, citing a lack of authorization. 'We do know that the Department of Justice has been involved in the decision to withhold that information from Congress,' Schiff told reporters Thursday. 'We do not know -- because we cannot get an answer to the question -- about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress.' He said lawmakers had yet to see the complaint by Thursday afternoon. 'We do not know whether press reports are accurate or inaccurate about the contents of the complaint,' he said. Earlier Thursday, the president denied having done anything inappropriate. Update 1 p.m. EDT Sept. 19: Trump on Thursday denied any wrongdoing after reports claimed a whistleblower had come forward with a complaint about the president making an unspecified promise to a foreign leader. 'Another Fake News story out there - it never ends!' Trump wrote Thursday in a tweet. 'Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. 'Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!' Original report: The promise occurred during a phone conversation with the leader, one source told the Post. Details about the alleged pledge and the leader's identity was not immediately available. Although Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community's inspector general, believed that the whistleblower complaint warranted 'urgent concern,' acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire so far has declined to provide information about the communication to the House Intelligence Committee, the Post reported. A closed hearing with Atkinson is slated for Thursday, the committee said. Maguire is expected to testify publicly Sept. 26, according to the committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
  • A Massachusetts man in his 70s has died after contracting Eastern equine encephalitis, or EEE, state health officials said Friday. >> Read more trending news  Authorities said the man was a resident of Freetown, a town about 50 miles south of Boston, according to WFXT. 'Our most sincere sympathy, thoughts and prayers go out to the victim, to their family and their loved ones,' town officials said in a news release. The man was identified as having the 10th confirmed human case of EEE in the state. Officials said eight other cases of EEE have been confirmed in animals, including seven horses and a goat. The man's death was the second reported in the state from EEE. At least two other EEE-related deaths have been reported in recent weeks in Rhode Island and Michigan. 'We continue to emphasize the need for people to protect themselves from mosquito bites,' Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said Friday in a news release. “The unusually warm weather expected this weekend will increase outdoor activity among people and mosquitoes. It is absolutely essential that people take steps to avoid being bitten by a mosquito.” Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said several cases of EEE are reported each year, most often in states along the Gulf Coast. The mosquito-borne virus is rare, but serious, and can affect people of all ages, Massachusetts health officials said. Boston25News.com contributed to this report.
  • Here is a look at what impeachment is and why it doesn’t necessarily mean removal from office. How does impeachment work? Impeachment was established by the framers of the Constitution as a way to accuse a president of a crime and to hold a trial to determine if he is guilty of that crime. The Constitution lays out two specific actions, treason and bribery, that could lead to impeachment and removal of a president from office. The system also allows for a broader category to accuse a president of crime, although that category is more vague. A president can also be charged with and found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What exactly constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors is not defined in the Constitution, making impeachment on that basis more difficult. By design, it is not easy to get rid of a president. Here are the steps in the process for impeaching a president: First, an impeachment resolution must be introduced by a member of the House of Representatives. The speaker of the House must then direct the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary (or a special committee) to hold a hearing on the resolution to decide whether to put the measure to a vote by the full chamber and when to hold such a vote. A simple majority of the Judiciary Committee must approve the resolution. If the Judiciary Committee approves the resolution, it moves to a full vote on the House floor. If a simple majority of the those present and voting in the House approve an article of impeachment, then the president is impeached. The procedure then moves to the Senate where a “trial” is held to determine if the president committed a crime. There is no set procedure for the trial. How it is conducted would be set by the Senate leadership. Members of the House serve as “managers” in the Senate trial. Managers serve a similar role as prosecutors do in a criminal trial, they present evidence during the procedure. The president would have counsel to represent him at the Senate process. The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial. Senators listen to the evidence presented, including closing arguments from each side and retire to deliberate. Senators then reconvene and vote on whether the president is guilty or not guilty of the crimes he is accused of. It takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict. If the president is found guilty, he is removed from office and the vice president is sworn-in as president. The hearing in the Senate, along with a charge in the House that the president has committed a crime is not a legal one. No penalty, other than removal from office, is brought against a president in an impeachment hearing. Impeachment trials have been held twice in the country’s history -- for President Andrew Johnson and for President Bill Clinton -- and both ended in acquittals: meaning the presidents were impeached by the House, but not convicted and removed from office by the Senate. One vote kept Johnson from being convicted of firing the secretary of war in 1868, which went against a tenure act. In 1999, the Senate was 22 votes shy of convicting Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by Paula Jones.

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