Miami-Dade County

Miami’s condemned hope for new sentences as Florida Supreme Court weighs death penalty

Timothy Hurst
Timothy Hurst Florida Corrections

Forty years have passed since William Lee Thompson raped a young woman inside a North Miami-Dade motel, torturing her for two days until she died.

Thompson today remains the longest serving Miami prisoner on Florida’s Death Row.

Like many of the 388 Death-Row inmates — including more than 20 from Miami-Dade — Thompson is hoping that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision will give him a chance to escape execution. That January decision, in Hurst v. Florida, ruled that the state’s sentencing scheme was unconstitutional, forcing lawmakers to revamp the law and throwing fuel into the fire of legal uncertainty surrounding capital punishment.

Now, the Florida Supreme Court is weighing whether longtime Death Row inmates such as Thompson should be afforded new sentencing hearings. The so-called “retroactivity” question will likely be answered in the coming months, and is one of several legal battles that have delayed two executions and kept the state’s death penalty in legal limbo.

For relatives of the murdered, the ongoing legal battles are dredging up years of frustration with the pace of the justice system, while death penalty critics believe the court might soon fix a flawed, if cruel, system of capital punishment.

“Time has healed some things, but some things you still get angry about. Why has it taken so long? Why has he used the court system to his advantage?” said Chris Ivester, the brother of Sally Ivester, the woman murdered by Thompson in 1976. “What is the judicial system really about — to protect the victim? Or to protect the perpetrator?”

Thompson’s lawyer, Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer, has now asked the Florida Supreme Court to throw out his death sentence because of the Hurst case. She also believes Thompson cannot be executed because of a high court ban on capital punishment for people with low IQs.

“We are hopeful the Florida Supreme Court will give Mr. Thompson the opportunity to have a new sentencing under Hurst, and also present him the chance to present — in a scientifically sound manner — that he is intellectually disabled,” Samuels Parmer said.

The next round of death penalty legal wrangling comes Tuesday, when the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Larry Perry, who is accused of murdering his infant son in Osceola County.

Justices will consider whether the Hurst decision actually declared the entire Florida death penalty unconstitutional, and whether the new law applies to “pending prosecutions” for crimes that occurred before it was passed in March.

Opponents of the death penalty believe it’s only a matter of time.

“It’s clear that at a bare minimum, the overwhelming majority of Death Row inmates are going to have to be re-sentenced, or sentenced to life in prison,” said Karen Gottlieb, of Florida International University’s Florida Center for Capital Representation. “The decision could not be more important. It’s literally the difference between life and death.”

The case of Timothy Lee Hurst, who murdered a Pensacola fast-food restaurant worker, has emerged as the biggest test to Florida’s capital punishment system since the 1970s.

In the January decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system was unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, Florida jurors issued bare majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty.

The opinion evolved from a similar ruling in a 2002 case, Ring v. Arizona, holding that juries in that state should have the sole authority to decide on aggravating circumstances that made someone eligible for the death penalty. Florida had long considered itself different because of the jury’s “advisory” role.

Except for Alabama, Florida and Delaware, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence — an issue that has long rankled critics of Florida’s death penalty.

The decision forced the Legislature to fix the death-penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors.

That unanimity issue is still very much bubbling. Earlier this month, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch became the first state court judge to declare that the new law is unconstitutional — prosecutors are now appealing that ruling.

For now, the Hurst decision will certainly apply to inmates who, although sentenced to death, had not finished their initial “direct” appeals to the Florida Supreme Court. In all, the state’s high court counts 37 “direct appeals” pending before the court.

In Miami, that includes relatively recent Death Row additions such as Joel Lebron, convicted of executing high school senior Ana Maria Angel after kidnapping her and her boyfriend from South Beach in 2002; Tavares Calloway, convicted of shooting five during a botched 1997 robbery, and Rafael Andres, convicted of murdering a waitress during a robbery in 2005.

But the vast majority of Death Row inmates would benefit from Hurst only if the Florida Supreme Court finds the decision is retroactive. Some of Miami’s most infamous killers — their victims include cops, children and elderly people — fall into that category. Some of the cases include:

▪ Guillermo Arbelaez, who hurled 5-year-old Julio Rivas to his death from a Miami bridge after a fight with the boy’s mother in 1988.

▪ Daniel Lugo and Noel Dorbal, bodybuilders who hacked up Frank Griga and his girlfriend after a botched kidnapping in 1994. The case was made into the dark comedy Pain and Gain, which angered Griga’s relatives and prosecutors.

▪ Labrant Dennis, who murdered University of Miami linebacker Marlon Barnes and his girlfriend inside a campus dorm room in 1996.

In Thompson’s case, he and another man murdered Ivester, 23, inside the Sunny Isles Motel.

Then 23, he was a former short-order cook, carnival worker, prostitute and soldier. He checked into the motel with motorcycle gang leader Rocco James Surace, 30. With them were two girlfriends: Ivester, of Georgia, and Barbara Savage, 19.

At their urging, Ivester had asked her mother for money. She produced only $25. For two days, the men raped her with a chair leg, burned her flesh with cigarettes and whipped her for hours with a chain. She died of internal bleeding.

Decades of legal fights ensued. Thompson, 64, received two more sentencing hearings. Each time, a jury recommended death.

“Three separate juries determined that Mr. Thompson deserved death,” said one of the case’s most recent Miami-Dade prosecutors, Abbe Rifkin. “Thompson and the other cases that could be affected by Hurst run the risk of of becoming classic examples of justice delayed, justice denied because of the amount of time which has passed since they were originally sentenced. Important witnesses die or move on. A new jury might never hear all the facts.”

But Thompson’s attorneys say he should be spared because he has an IQ of only 70. The last sentencing — a 7 to 5 jury vote — came under a system that has now been declared unlawful, lawyer Samuels Parmer wrote to the Supreme Court.

“The jury’s previous recommendation is meaningless, unconstitutional and void,” she wrote.

The issue of retroactivity likely won’t turn on the Thompson case.

Legal analysts believe that the Florida Supreme Court will most likely decide through the cases of convicted killers Mark Asay and Michael Lambrix, both of whom were scheduled to be executed in recent months.

After the Hurst opinion was released, the Florida Supreme Court stayed both executions.

Prosecutors have pointed out that the Ring case, which spurred the Hurst decision, has been found not to be retroactive — and retroactivity would cause a “severe and unsettling impact” on the justice system, with hundreds of cases having to be reopened with witnesses who may no longer be around.

Death-penalty opponents — from the ACLU to the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers — have urged the court to convert all Death Row inmate punishments to life in prison, saying they were sentenced under an entirely unconstitutional defective system.

Some legal analysts don’t believe the Florida Supreme Court will go that far. In March, Justice Barbara Pariente — during a hearing in the Hillsborough case of Kenneth Jackson — seemed to suggest that the argument that everyone on Death Row should instantly get a lesser sentence was “fallacious”

“They would all have to be reduced to life,” she said. “Believe me ... our workload would be considerably decreased if we could do that.”

But who, then, would get a new sentencing under Hurst?

Attorney Martin McClain said there is also debate as to whether only cases before Ring v. Arizona, or an even earlier case from 2000, could be eligible for new sentencing hearings. He believes “retroactivity” should be afforded to everyone — including his clients, Asay and Lambrix.

Said McClain: “How can you fairly — without it being arbitrary — apply it to some people and not others?