Luther Douglas was sentenced to death by the State of Florida for a double murder. According to court documents Luther Douglas would murder Garrick Stringfield and his thirteen year old son Phillip Sims. Luther Douglas was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.
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A Jacksonville man convicted of killing a drug dealer and the dealer’s 13-year-old son had his death sentence overturned Thursday when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Thomas Bevel’s attorneys were ineffective.
Bevel was convicted in the 2004 shooting deaths of Garrick Stringfield, who Bevel and others said was dealing drugs with Bevel, as well as the death of Stringfield’s 13-year-old son, Phillip Sims. Sims was playing video games when he was shot and killed. Bevel was also convicted of wounding a woman visiting Stringfield who “played dead” after Bevel shot her.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that Bevel’s death sentence was unconstitutional because he received such inadequate representation from his attorneys during the sentencing phase of the trial.
Refik Eler, the former chief assistant public defender who led that office’s death penalty attorneys until former Public Defender Matt Shirk was voted out of office, handled the guilt phase, while defense attorney Richard Selinger handled the sentencing.
This was only Selinger’s second death penalty case, and he later testified that he had a “very busy” workload while representing Bevel. He said he didn’t begin his mitigation investigation until 12 days before trial, spending about 16 hours on mitigation investigation. Eler couldn’t be reached, but Selinger said that he was glad Bevel’s death sentence was reversed.
“I am pleased to know he will probably not be getting the death penalty, but beyond that I will not comment since I haven’t yet read the opinion.”
More than in other cases, death-penalty attorneys are expected to focus on what’s called mitigation, reasons a defendant shouldn’t be executed. The American Bar Association says death penalty defenses should include a mitigation specialist, a mitigation investigator, a mental-health expert and two attorneys, one focused only on the guilt-innocence phase of the trial and another focused only on the penalty phase.
In this case, Eler and Selinger didn’t hire a mitigation specialist. That was just one of the reasons Rick Sichta, Bevel’s new attorney, argued Eler and Selinger provided ineffective counsel.
Former Circuit Judge Lawrence Haddock rejected that argument initially, writing that “This Court should not and will not codify or institutionalize the burgeoning cottage industry of former paralegals or social workers who are ardent death penalty opponents who declare themselves to be ‘mitigation experts’ and demand exorbitant fees from the judicial system for doing work that any competent paralegal or investigator could do for one-third of the cost.”
But the Florida Supreme Court accepted Sichta’s argument that if Eler and Selinger had hired a mitigation investigator, they would’ve uncovered evidence of Bevel’s brain damage, childhood sexual abuse and neglect, his improvement during the time he had a stable home, evidence of physical and emotional abuse he suffered at the hands of Stringfield, evidence of Bevel’s past alcohol and drug abuse and evidence of his mental disorders.
“There is little doubt that the quality and depth of the postconviction evidence painted a more complete and troubling picture of Bevel’s background than was presented to the jury and the trial court,” the opinion said, specifically citing Sara Flynn, the mitigation specialist who worked for Sichta. This opinion, Sichta said, vindicated his stance that death-penalty attorneys should hire mitigation specialists.
Sichta said defense attorneys are expected to put in at least 1,000 hours into mitigation investigation for death penalty cases. “To me, this was one of the saddest cases I’ve seen when we actually dove into the investigation,” he said. “There was no chance for Mr. Bevel.”
This was Sichta’s fifth death penalty case in three months that had its sentence overturned. Gerald Murray, Donald Banks, Michael Jackson and Luther Douglas all had their death sentences overturned.
This, he said, “proves my point that this act of trying to put people to death does more harm than good. When are the victims ever going to see closure when the cases keep coming back for resentencings because we keep on getting it wrong?
“It’s unbelievably difficult to apply the death penalty non-arbitrarily, uniformly, accurately across the board,” he said. “You have more cases coming back than getting on death row. Does it really make sense to do all this stuff over again when you have a death penalty case getting reversed weekly? I don’t know.”
The State Attorney’s Office will decide if it wants to seek the death sentence again in those cases or if it will settle for life sentences. If the State Attorney’s Office does seek death sentences and win, the defendants will get to appeal again.