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Thursday, Nov 23, 2017
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Carlton: Is Hillsborough's new top prosecutor anti-death penalty? The answer might surprise you

The death penalty, and how we use it, is changing. Hey, it can happen, even in Florida.

Until recently, it was perfectly okay if only most people on a jury agreed that a killer should die. We have since come around to the idea that well, yes, perhaps unanimous is wiser given we're talking about taking a human life.

Meanwhile, a dramatic legal face-off is playing out between new Orlando-area state attorney Aramis Ayala — who refused to seek death for an accused cop killer, or anyone else for that matter — and Gov. Rick Scott, who promptly grabbed 23 death penalty cases away from her.

And here at home, newly elected Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has made clear that he believes the death penalty should be used for only "the most egregious cases, the worst of the worst." And that he believes this has not always been so.

So is Warren — if not another Ayala — at least a kindred spirit?

He is a former federal prosecutor who surprised a lot of people by ousting longtime State Attorney Mark Ober. Now courthouse lawyers, judges and cops are watching to see what kind of state attorney he turns out to be. And in the current climate, death cases are of keen interest.

After Ayala's stand, Warren and the rest of Florida's top prosecutors affirmed they would continue to seek death when appropriate. But he has also talked about the importance of an elected prosecutor's discretion.

Also interesting: Warren dropped the death penalty in the murder case against Carlos Rivas, citing his history of mental illness. Last week, Rivas was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for beating a homeless man to death in 2012.

This week, Warren confirmed the office will no longer seek death for Lawrence Robert Bongiovanni III, accused of hiding in a 7-Eleven bathroom before ambushing and repeatedly stabbing clerk Kenneth Lee Redding to death in 2013.

Bongiovanni's history of mental illness — reportedly in and out of hospitals since age 6 — and that he was 20 at the time of the slaying were factors, Warren told me this week.

Also worth noting: He says his office will not be using the threat of capital punishment to get a defendant to plead to life, a person's life not being "a bargaining chip."

So again: Is Warren's philosophy akin to Ayala's, except with a subtler, more defensible, slow drip method for avoiding death sentences?

The short answer: No.

The longer one is more considered.

Warren says his office is reviewing "from scratch" about 20 death penalty cases he inherited to make a fresh decision in each one. He calls a death sentence "the most serious and sobering component of our criminal justice system. The most important thing to me is that, as a society, we get it right."

In fact, he has already decided that death is appropriate for Steven Lorenzo, implicated in the horrific slayings of two men used as sex slaves. His office will also seek death for Keith Earl Davis, charged with murder in the death of nurse William Leslie McGoff.

Warren is still the new guy in a courthouse where lawyers and judges grew up together and police hold sway. But he seems more comfortable in the chair every day.

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