Nation roundup for October 20
Young served 43 years in Congress
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Senior U.S. House Republican Bill Young was being remembered as a defense hawk, with a passion for looking after the needs of men and women in uniform and those of his constituents back in Florida. Young died Friday at age 82, a week after announcing from his hospital bed that he wouldn’t seek a 23rd term.
“It’s only been a week since we began trying to imagine the House without Bill Young — an impossible task in its own right — and now he is gone,” House Speaker John Boehner, said in a statement. “In our sorrow, we recall how not a day went by without a colleague seeking Bill’s counsel as he sat on his perch in the corner of the House floor. Looking out for our men and women in uniform was his life’s work, and no one was better at it. No one was kinder, too.”
Florida was always top priority. Young brought hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks back to the Tampa Bay area in his 43 years in Congress, and built up a defense contracting industry in the region, creating jobs and stirring the economy.
Giant sea serpent on Calif. beach
OCEANSIDE, Calif. (AP) — For the second time in less than a week, a ‘sea serpent’ attracted gawkers on a Southern California beach.
This time the rare, snakelike oarfish washed up Friday afternoon in Oceanside.
It measured nearly 14 feet long and attracted a crowd of up to 75 people.
Oceanside police contacted SeaWorld San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Someone from NOAA retrieved the carcass, which was cut into sections for later study.
While it’s unusual to find the deep-water fish near shore, last Sunday a snorkeler off Catalina Island found an 18-foot-long oarfish and dragged it onto the beach with the help of a dozen other people. According to the Catalina Island Marine Institute, oarfish can grow to more than 50 feet, making them the longest bony fish in the world.
They are likely responsible for sea serpent legends throughout history.
Families fooled by escaped killers
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Family members and friends of two convicted killers freed from prison with fake paperwork initially thought their release was legitimate and spent time with them, even planning a birthday party for one.
But in the weeks since Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker were let out, relatives have learned their freedom happened only because phony documents fooled prison officials. Both men had been serving life in prison, but the paperwork, complete with case numbers and a judge’s forged signature, reduced their sentences to 15 years.
Jenkins was let out of the Franklin Correction Institution in the Panhandle on Sept. 27 and registered as a felon three days later at a jail in Orlando, about 300 miles from the prison.
Henry Pearson, who was described as Jenkins’ father figure, said he brought Jenkins clothes when he picked him up from prison and drove him to see his mother and grandmother.
Pearson planned a birthday party at his home for Jenkins a few days later, but he never showed up.
Jenkins turned 34 on Oct. 1.
At a news conference Saturday, family members of both men pleaded with them to turn themselves in.
“We love you. We believe in you. We just want you to surrender yourself to someone you trust who will bring you back here safely. We don’t want any harm to come to you,” said Walker’s mother, Lillie Danzy.
Danzy said the family thought their prayers had been answered when she got the call saying Walker would be released Oct. 8. There wasn’t time to pick him up, so he hopped a bus to his hometown.
Walker went to church last Sunday, and his mother said they have been cooperating with authorities and made no attempts to hide him.
She said her 34-year-old son is a man of faith with strong family values and she reminded him, “I know who you are, you know who you are.”
Authorities believe the men may still be in the central Florida area.
Just like Jenkins, Walker registered as a felon at the jail three days after he was released. Both men signed paperwork, were fingerprinted and even photographed before walking out of the jail without raising any alarms. Had one of the murder victim’s families not contacted prosecutors, authorities might not have known about the mistaken releases.
“We’re looking at the system’s breakdown, I’m not standing here to point the finger at anyone at this time,” Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Friday as he appealed to the public to help authorities find the men.
In light of the errors, the Corrections Department changed the way it verifies early releases and state legislators promised to hold investigative hearings.
Felons are required to register by law. When they do, their fingerprints are digitally uploaded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a deputy at the jail verifies that they don’t have any outstanding warrants, said jail spokesman Allen Moore.
By registering as the law required, the men likely drew less attention. If they hadn’t, a warrant would’ve been put out for their arrest, the sheriff said.
It’s not clear exactly who made the fake documents ordering the release or whether the escapes were related. Authorities said the paperwork in both cases was filed in the last couple of months and included forged signatures from the same prosecutor’s office and judge.
The state Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are investigating the error, but so far have not released any details.
The Corrections Department said on Friday it verified the early release by checking the Orange County Clerk of Court’s website and calling them.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews sent a letter to judges saying prison officials will now verify with judges — and not just court clerks — before releasing prisoners early.
Jenkins was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man. It was Pugh’s family that contacted the prosecutor’s office about Jenkins’ release.
Walker was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1999 Orange County slaying of 23-year-old Cedric Slater.
Ga. to review tough death penalty provision
ATLANTA (AP) — The state that was the first to pass a law prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates is revisiting a requirement for defendants to prove the disability beyond a reasonable doubt — the strictest burden of proof in the nation.
A state House committee is holding an out-of-session meeting Thursday to seek input from the public. Other states that impose the death penalty have a lower threshold for proving mental disability, and some don’t set standards at all.
Just because lawmakers are holding a meeting does not mean changes to the law will be proposed, and the review absolutely is not a first step toward abolishing Georgia’s death penalty, said State Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.
Georgia’s law is the strictest in the U.S. even though the state was also the first, in 1988, to pass a law prohibiting the execution of mentally disabled death row inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in 2002, ruling that the execution of mentally disabled offenders is unconstitutional.
The Georgia law’s toughest-in-the-nation status compels lawmakers to review it, Golick said.
“When you’re an outlier, you really ought not to stick your head in the sand,” he said. “You need to go ahead and take a good, hard look at what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, weigh the pros and cons of a change and act accordingly or not.”
Thursday’s meeting comes against the backdrop of the case of Warren Lee Hill, who was sentenced to die for the 1990 beating death of fellow inmate Joseph Handspike, who was bludgeoned with a nail-studded board as he slept. At the time, Hill was already serving a life sentence for the 1986 slaying of his girlfriend, Myra Wright, who was shot 11 times.
Hill’s lawyers have long maintained he is mentally disabled and therefore shouldn’t be executed. The state has consistently argued that his lawyers have failed to prove his mental disability beyond a reasonable doubt.
Hill has come within hours of execution on several occasions, most recently in July. Each time, a court has stepped in at the last minute and granted a delay based on challenges raised by his lawyers. Only one of those challenges was related to his mental abilities, and it was later dismissed.
A coalition of groups that advocate for people with developmental disabilities pushed for the upcoming legislative committee meeting and has been working to get Georgia’s standard of proof changed to a preponderance of the evidence rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Hill’s case has drawn national attention and has shone a spotlight on Georgia’s tough standard, they say.
The process has taken an enormous amount of education, said Kathy Keeley, executive director of All About Developmental Disabilities. Rather than opposition to or support for the measure she’s pushing, she’s mostly encountered a lack of awareness about what the state’s law says, she said.
The groups are hoping to not only express their views at the meeting, but also to hear from others to get a broader perspective, Keeley said. The changes should be relatively simple and very narrow in scope, targeting only the burden of proof for death penalty defendants, she said.
Ashley Wright, district attorney for the Augusta district and president of the state District Attorneys’ Association, said prosecutors question the logic of changing a law that they don’t see as problematic and that has repeatedly been upheld by state and federal courts.
“The district attorneys don’t believe that you change a law for no reason and, in this case, the law appears to be working,” she said. “Where has a jury done a disservice? Why are we putting all our eggs in the defendant’s basket and forgetting that there’s a victim?”
Prosecutors agree that the mentally disabled shouldn’t be executed, and defendants are frequently spared the death penalty when there is proof of their mental disability supported by appropriate documentation from credible and reliable experts, she said.
But Hill’s lawyer, Brian Kammer, argues that psychiatric diagnoses are complex, and “experts who have to make diagnoses do not do so beyond a reasonable doubt, they do it to a reasonable scientific certainty.”
Furthermore, he said, disagreements between experts make the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard nearly impossible to meet.
“Even where evidence is otherwise seemingly overwhelming that a person has mental retardation, one dissenting opinion that splits a hair on one or more pieces of evidence can result in that person who’s almost certainly mentally retarded being executed,” Kammer said.
In Hill’s case, a state court judge concluded the defendant was probably mentally disabled. In any other state, that would have spared him the death penalty, Kammer said.
Additionally, three state experts who testified in 2000 that Hill was not mentally disabled submitted sworn statements in February saying they had been rushed in their evaluation at the time. After further review and based on scientific developments since then, they now believe Hill is mentally disabled, they said.
The state has dismissed the doctors’ new testimony, saying it isn’t credible. And courts have ruled that Hill is procedurally barred from having a new hearing. His lawyers had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case based on the new evidence, but the high court this month declined to take it up. Hill has a challenge on different grounds pending before the Georgia Supreme Court. But he has exhausted his challenges on the mental disability issue, Kammer said.
Even if changes are made to Georgia’s law, they will likely not be retroactive and wouldn’t apply to Hill, Keeley said.
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