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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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Likewise, HRC officials spoke out this week about Hill’s killing. “Hill, like all of us, had hopes, dreams, aspirations and plans for the future,” HRC spokesperson Elliott Kozuch told Newsweek. “She had family and friends who are mourning this senseless loss, a loss that is part of a larger epidemic of violence against the transgender community in this country, spurred by a toxic mix of transphobia, racism, misogyny and unchecked gun violence.” Kozuch said while the transgender community has protections in employment, housing and public accommodations in Kansas City, there are no state nondiscrimination protections for the marginalized community. Transgender people are also not among the groups covered by Missouri’s hate crimes legislation. According to HRC data, all but five states across the country have laws addressing hate crimes, but the laws vary greatly in who they protect. Fifteen states do not address sexual orientation or gender identity in their hate crime laws, the HRC shows. See the Human Rights Campaign's map of hate crime laws in the U.S. below. Members of the LGBTQ community mourned Hill’s death on social media. “Rest in power, beloved,” one woman wrote on Facebook, adding a broken heart emoji. “Brianna Hill. #SayHerName.” Transgender actress, singer, teacher and activist Alexandra Billings also spoke out about Hill and every other transgender woman who has been killed or faces violence for who they are. “My sisters, I see you,” Billings wrote on Facebook. “I am with you because I am one of you, and we will survive this. Our government will not continue to ignore us, and our allies will speak up. We will revolt and we will rise. We are made of sturdy stuff. We have lived through the centuries and it will take more than a few violent men to eradicate us from the human experience. “We are part of this world and we deserve to be here. We will not let this stand.” Besides the death of Berryman, Hill’s slaying in Kansas City also comes on the heels of the June 25 killing of Brooklyn Lindsey, 32, who was found dead on the porch of an abandoned home on Spruce Avenue, court records show. She died of multiple gunshot wounds. Neighbors, who didn’t identify themselves out of fear of retaliation, told KCTV Lindsey had been badly beaten before they heard the gunshots that killed her. According to court records, investigators recovered five shell casings from around Lindsey’s body and tested the casings for DNA evidence. A profile was obtained and entered into CODIS, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which matched the genetic material to Marcus S. Lewis. Investigators learned that Lewis was in a relationship with the owner of a black Chevy Impala. The car was spotted by license plate readers driving in the area of the shooting around the time that the Kansas City Police Department received a report of shots fired about four blocks from where Lindsey’s body was found. Read the probable cause statement in the Brooklyn Lindsey slaying below. Charging Document in Brooklyn Lindsey Homicide by National Content Desk on Scribd Lewis, 41, was arrested in July and indicted last month on charges of second-degree murder, armed criminal action and unlawful possession of a firearm, court records show. Court records, which identify Lindsey as male and by her given name instead of her chosen one, show that Lewis told detectives he shot Lindsey after she propositioned him, “attempting to solicit a date,” and would not leave him alone after he declined her advances. He said he sold the gun, which he had bought earlier in the day, to an unknown person after the homicide. “l believe that Marcus Lewis poses a danger to the community or to any other persons because he is a habitual unregistered sex offender,” Detective Ryan Taylor wrote in a probable cause statement. “He is under investigation for aggravated domestic violence involving a firearm and an armed business robbery involving a firearm.” Court records indicate Lewis has also been indicted in that case. He remained in the Jackson County Jail Friday, awaiting trial. The unlawful firearm possession charge stems from Lewis’ April 1998 conviction of first-degree statutory rape, a felony in Missouri. As a convicted felon, he is not permitted to have a firearm. Lindsey was described by friends as an activist who worked with organizations like the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project. The organization spoke out last month after Berryman’s death. “As we hold space to remember and uplift Ja’Leyah, we must also recognize the factors at play that contribute to the dramatically increased risk of violence that trans women of color, especially black trans women, face every day,” a post on the group’s Facebook page read. “Restrictions on basic needs and services like housing, employment, safe streets, healthcare and protection under the law are just some barriers that put our sisters in harm’s way daily. “The discriminatory and violent systems that perpetuate violence against transgender women of color are a direct result of bias from within and outside our own communities. Ja’leyah’s light shone to a select few, but we will let her light shine on all of us today.” Kris Wade, with the Justice Project Kansas City, told CNN she knew Lindsey well and had helped her for more than a decade. She described Lindsey as a “sweetheart,” and an intelligent woman who did not come from the streets, but sometimes ended up there. “She felt that she had not lost her humanity out there,” Wade told CNN. Wade said Lindsey, who had been brutally beaten and hospitalized just weeks before her death, needed to get off the street, but Justice Project was unable to find her a bed. “We didn’t have any money to put her up,” Wade said. Lindsey died at the same intersection where a Hispanic transgender woman, Tamara Dominguez, 36, was run over and killed Aug. 15, 2015. The driver of the truck, Luis Sanchez, ran over Dominguez repeatedly, according to witnesses. Members of the LGBTQ community condemned the “atrocious” act in the days after Dominguez’s death. “There’s this horrible dark underbelly of hatred that goes on and on and on and on and it must stop,” Caroline Gibbs, director of the Transgender Institute of Kansas City, told KCTV at the time. Dominguez’s brother, Alberto Dominguez, spoke to the news station through a friend, Juan Rendon, who translated his Spanish to English. “He just want to say to the person that did that to her, that he (Alberto) would forgive them for what he did to her,” Rendon translated as Dominguez started to cry, the news station reported. “We are not here to judge nobody, and he (Alberto) hopes that person really feels bad for what he did.” Sanchez, who was initially charged with murder, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in December 2018 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Now 31, he is serving his sentence at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. Tamara Dominguez was loved, her brother told KCTV. “He doesn’t know she has family. She had her mom. She had her nephews, brothers and sisters. That person didn’t think about what he did,” Rendon translated.

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