death penalty news----FLA., ALA., OHIO, CALIF.
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Rick Halperin
2017-06-09 13:01:21 UTC
June 9


State Attorney's Office will seek death penalty for Russell Tillis

The State Attorney's Office will seek the death penalty for Russell Tillis, the
Jacksonville man charged with murder in the death of a homeless woman whose
remains were buried in his booby-trapped yard, a spokesman confirmed Thursday.

The Tillis case marks the 1st time State Attorney Melissa Nelson will pursue
the death sentence for a defendant since taking office in January.

The news comes the same day that a grand jury indicted Tillis on charges of
1st-degree murder, kidnapping, human trafficking and abuse of a dead human body
in the death of 30-year-old Joni Lynn Gunter.

"We are finalizing paperwork and will be filing a notice to seek the death
penalty," spokesman David Chapman wrote in a statement provided to the

Tillis, 55, was originally charged with murder in December 2016 after Gunter's
remains were identified through forensic analysis, which determined she died of
blunt-force trauma, according to his arrest report. She died sometime from
February 2014 through May 2015.

Police found Gunter's remains in February 2016 after obtaining a warrant to
search a property off Belfort Road that belonged to Tillis. The arrest report
said police were acting on a tip from an inmate, who said Tillis had told him
that a woman was restrained, given drugs and sexually exploited before she was
killed and buried.

Tillis has been behind bars since May 2015 after police said he drew knives
during a confrontation with officers attempting to serve warrants at the East
Bowden Circle residence where he lived. He was initially booked on a list of
offenses including aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

Court records show Tillis is set to be arraigned on the charges contained in
the indictment June 16. A trial date has not yet been scheduled.

(source: Florida Times-Union)


Florida Supreme Court overturns death sentence for Bessman Okafor

Convicted killer Bessman Okafor is no longer on death row.

Okafor was sentenced to death by a jury and judge in November 2015 for the
killing of Alex Zaldivar, 19, and wounding 2 others during an Ocoee home
invasion in 2012. The 3 were set to testify against Okafor in a separate home
invasion case before the killing.

However, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence on Thursday
because the jury did not come to an unanimous verdict.

"Actually, it was something that I expected all the way," said Rafael Zaldivar,
Alex's father. "Those are the new laws in Florida and it has to be a 12-0 and
unfortunately, his case was 11 to 1, and we have to follow whatever the law

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that Florida's death penalty was
unconstitutional because it gave too much power to the judges and not enough
power to the jurors. The state Legislature has since passed a law that requires
jurors to reach a unanimous decision in death penalty cases.

Thursday's decision by the Florida Supreme Court means Okafor's attorneys can
ask for new sentencing proceedings, and a new jury will have to decide if he'll
be sentenced to life in prison or death.

However Orange-Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala has said she doesn't
plan to seek the death penalty in any cases while she's in office. That
decision forced Gov. Rick Scott to assign 23 death penalty cases to State
Attorney Brad King.

Following the Florida Supreme Court ruling, Scott issued an executive order
assigning the Okafor case to King.

"Here we are and it's something that we have to deal with right now and we just
want to get it over with, bring him back and give him another death penalty
phase and get that 12-0 and send him back to death row," Zaldivar said.

State Attorney Ayala said in a statement: "I am very pleased that Bessman
Okafor's conviction for his horrific crimes was upheld today by the Supreme
Court of Florida.

"Florida's High Court was tasked with attempting to resolve the chaos
surrounding Florida's death penalty statute after being stricken down by the
United States Supreme Court early last year.

"I am not surprised by the Florida Supreme Court's ruling nor the Governors'
hasty reaction."

(source: WFTV news)


Florida Governor Removes Prosecutor From Death Row Case

The Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing hearing for a death row
inmate on Thursday and Gov. Rick Scott immediately took the case away from an
Orlando prosecutor who is opposed to the death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered the new hearing for Bessman Okafor because
the sentence handed out in 2015 came after an 11-1 jury recommendation, and the
court now requires unanimous jury votes to allow the death penalty. That handed
the case back to State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who has said she won't seek the
death penalty in cases she prosecutes.

Shortly after the ruling was issued, Scott issued an executive order handing
the case to State Attorney Brad King, who serves a neighboring judicial

Ayala was elected last year and wasn't involved in the prosecution and
sentencing of Okafor. He was convicted of murdering 19-year-old Alex Zaldivar,
who was scheduled to testify against him in a home invasion robbery trial. Two
other witnesses were shot in the head, but survived.

Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Orlando also wanted the case removed from Ayala
and wrote to Scott urging the action.

Cortes said in an interview that prosecutors should consider the wishes of the
victims' families in deciding whether to seek the death penalty. He said he
spoke to Zaldivar's father, Rafael, and was told the family wants Okafor

"He's willing to go through this again in hopes of seeking justice for his
son," Cortes said. "(Ayala) continues to make the statement that she's against
the death penalty and will not seek it, which is I believe a dereliction of

Scott has already removed Ayala from any ongoing murder cases where they death
penalty can be applied. Ayala is challenging his action and the Supreme Court
is hearing arguments in the dispute June 28.

Ayala said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman that she was pleased
Okafor's conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court, which has ordered new
sentence hearings in dozens of death penalty cases since last fall because jury
recommendations were not unanimous.

"I am not surprised by the Florida Supreme Court's ruling nor the governors'
hasty reaction," Ayala said.

(source: Associated Press)


Alabama executes man for '94 killing of fast-food workers

A man convicted of killing 3 people during the 1994 robbery of an Alabama
fast-food restaurant was put to death Thursday by lethal injection.

Robert Melson, 46, was pronounced dead at 10:27 p.m. CDT Thursday at a
southwest Alabama prison, authorities said. The execution was the state's 2nd
of the year.

State prosecutors said Melson and another man who used to work at the
restaurant, robbed a Popeye's in Gadsden, 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of
Birmingham, and Melson opened fire on 4 employees in the restaurant's freezer.
Nathaniel Baker, Tamika Collins and Darrell Collier were killed. The surviving
employee, Bryant Archer, crawled for help and was able to identify 1 of the
robbers as the former worker which led police to Melson.

Collins' family members wore a badge with her photograph and the phrase "In Our
Hearts Forever." Her family issued a statement saying that 3 young people lost
their lives for "a few hundred dollars" and criticized court filings on behalf
of Melson that challenged the state's execution procedure as inhumane. Collins'
mother and 2 sisters witnessed the execution.

"He has been on death row for over 21 years being supported by the state of
Alabama and feels he should not suffer a little pain during the execution. What
does he think those 3 people suffered after he shot them, leaving them in a
freezer?" the statement said.

Melson shook his head no when the prison warden asked if he had a final
statement. A prison chaplain knelt with him. Melson's hands quivered at the
start of the procedure and his breathing was labored, with his chest moving up
and down quickly, before slowing until it was no longer perceptible.

Melson's attorneys had filed a flurry of last-minute appeals seeking to stay
the execution. The filings centered on Alabama's use of the sedative midazolam
which some states have turned to as other lethal injection drugs became
difficult to obtain.

The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily delayed the execution to consider Melson's
stay request, but ruled after 9 p.m. that the execution could go forward.

Midazolam is supposed to prevent inmates from feeling pain before other drugs
are given to stop their lungs and heart, but several executions in which
inmates lurched or coughed have raised questions about its use. An inmate in
Alabama coughed and heaved for the first 13 minutes of an execution held in

Melson's attorney argued that midazolam does not anesthetize an inmate, but
they might look still, because a 2nd drug, a paralytic, prevents them from

"Alabama's execution protocol is an illusion. It creates the illusion of a
peaceful death when in truth, it is anything but," Melson's attorneys wrote in
the filing to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama attorney general's office argued midazolam's use has been upheld by
the U.S. Supreme Court and it has allowed multiple executions to proceed using
the drug, including the execution of an Alabama inmate last month.

"Robert Melson's decades-long avoidance of justice is over. For 23 years, the
families of the 3 young people whose lives he took, as well as a survivor, have
waited for closure and healing. That process can finally begin tonight,"
Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a statement after the execution.

(source: Associated Press)


Attorneys want death sentence for Ohio woman reconsidered

Attorneys for Ohio's only condemned female killer are asking the state Supreme
Court to reconsider a ruling upholding her death sentence for the 3rd time.

Lawyers for death row inmate Donna Roberts said Thursday that allowing a judge
who didn't oversee the original trial to sentence her was unconstitutional.

The court again upheld Roberts' death sentence last month.

Justice Terrence O'Donnell wrote for the court majority in that decision,
rejecting constitutional arguments about the new judge.

The 73-year-old Roberts was accused of planning her ex-husband's murder with a
boyfriend in hopes of collecting insurance money.

The boyfriend, Nathaniel Jackson, also was sentenced to death in the 2001

(source: dailyjournal.net)


Prop. 66 unfair to death row inmates and bad for California

The California Supreme Court has to strike down key elements of Proposition 66
if it wants to ensure that justice prevails on death penalty cases.

That became clear Tuesday when the justices heard arguments on the legality of
the proposition, which voters narrowly passed last fall to more quickly kill
criminals who are sentenced to death.

Ron Briggs, whose father wrote the ballot measure expanding California's death
penalty in 1978, and the late John Van de Kamp, a former state attorney
general, mounted the legal challenge. They argued that the proposition does not
give people sentenced to die a fair chance to mount proper appeals. They're

Proposition 66 accelerates capital punishment by setting five-year deadlines
for appeals. For those who believe in the death penalty, wanting to expedite
the sentence is understandable. Since 1978, the state has executed only 13 of
the 749 inmates on death row.

But there is ample evidence that 5 years is not enough time for inmates to
prove their innocence. For every 10 prisoners executed in the United States
since 1976, 1 has been set free because of advances in DNA and other forensics.
The evidence can take time to discover and develop.

And the defenders' argument that the 5-year limit in the proposition can't
really be enforced is outrageous. So some inmates will be held to the deadline,
and others will get a pass?

Appeals in capital punishment cases in California now take 15 years. But the
remedies proposed in Proposition 66 only raise new problems.

For example, instead of having the California Supreme Court hear the appeals,
Proposition 66 would allow the Superior Court judge who heard the original
criminal trial to hear it.

This would further clog the state's already overcrowded Superior Courts with
nearly 400 cases, delaying justice for many others awaiting court action
without providing any extra resources to ease the extra load. It also ignores
the state Constitution's well reasoned requirement that the Supreme Court hear
all direct death penalty appeals because of their gravity.

Another provision would force lawyers to accept capital punishment cases if
they already accept other kinds of court-appointed work. This will likely
discourage many lawyers from accepting any clients under a court appointment,
again slowing justice for many. More frightening, it could mean the cases will
go to attorneys who lack the experience, expertise or huge amount of time
needed to responsibly take on a life-and-death appeal under tremendous deadline

California should do away with the death penalty. It's barbaric, unfairly
applied and has been shown to be no more effective as a deterrent than life in
prison without the possibility of parole. It costs a fortune that instead could
go to schools and to other positive programs that prevent crime or help

If voters want to keep capital punishment in California, as the 2016 vote
indicates, then the Supreme Court has an obligation to ensure that death row
inmates retain their full legal rights to appeal before the state kills them.

(source: Editorial, Mercury News)

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