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“Blind And Insane Justice”: What Is Wrong With Florida Juries?

On Saturday night, a Florida jury of six women found George Zimmerman not guilty of any crime in the shooting death of a black teenager named Trayvon Martin. Not murder. Not even manslaughter. A lot of people are having a hard time accepting this verdict, given that Zimmerman was armed with a pistol and Martin was not, and a police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Martin, and he did it anyway.

It doesn’t help that the same prosecutor who lost the Zimmerman case recently won a conviction against Marissa Alexander, a black woman who fired a warning shot to chase off her abusive ex-husband, hurting no one. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Twenty years for a warning shot against a known abuser versus no time at all for killing an unarmed teenager leaves you scratching your head and wondering if justice is not just blind but also insane.

I spent four years covering criminal courts in Florida. I covered every kind of case, from misdemeanors to murder. One thing I learned is that you can never predict what a jury might do once it’s locked away to deliberate. I covered one trial where the defendant was accused of bigamy, and his defense was: Sorry, I forgot I was married already. He walked.

Prosecutors around the state boast of their high conviction rates, but those stellar records tend to be built primarily on successful plea deals, not trials. And frankly, some of their trial successes turn out to be the result of flimsy or faulty evidence—Florida leads the nation in the number of death row inmates who were subsequently exonerated.

People who work in the court system can blame the legislature for the way our laws are worded. For instance, Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was based on a distortion of a single anecdote, and it has subsequently allowed drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free. The law has proven especially effective in providing legal cover if the victim is black. In 2005, for instance, Derrick Hansberry shot a romantic rival five times—four as the man tried to run away—but after he claimed a “Stand Your Ground” defense, a jury acquitted him of attempted murder.

Florida juries have proven to be very lenient even in cases that don’t involve “Stand Your Ground.” Two years ago, as you probably heard, a Florida jury found Casey Anthony not guilty of murdering her daughter. Two months ago, a Florida jury acquitted 70-year-old Ralph Wald of murder for gunning down his 41-year-old wife’s 32-year-old lover, whom Wald caught with his pants around his knees. In 2007, despite seeing a videotape of seven guards kicking and beating a 14-year-old boy named Martin Lee Anderson to death at a juvenile boot camp, an all-white jury acquitted them and a nurse who’d failed to stop the killing of manslaughter charges. The guards and nurse said they were just following normal boot camp rules and procedures.

Afterward, the family’s attorney told reporters, “You kill a dog, you go to jail—you kill a little black boy and nothing happens.”

Some Florida jury verdicts can make your head hurt. A Florida jury acquitted World Series hero Jim Leyritz of DUI-manslaughter in connection with a wreck in which a 30-year-old mother died—but they did convict him of drunk driving in connection with that same wreck. A criminal court jury acquitted a Clearwater police officer named Robert Milliron of a manslaughter charge for shooting an unarmed man. Then a civil court jury said Milliron was to blame for the death after all—but not the city that employed him, and thus the dead man’s family was not entitled to any monetary damages.

The most forgiving jury in Florida history was probably the one that heard the case of four white Miami police officers charged with murder in the death of a black insurance executive named Arthur McDuffie. A Marine Corps veteran, McDuffie died in 1979 four days after he went out riding on his motorcycle and wound up in a coma. The officers said he sustained his injuries when he crashed while trying to avoid being arrested for reckless driving. The truth was that the cops had caught up to McDuffie and then beaten and kicked him mercilessly, cracking his skull like an egg. A medical examiner testified that the fatal blow was “equivalent to falling four stories and landing between your eyes.” The cops phonied up the crime scene to hide what they’d done. It all came out anyway.

“My child is dead, they beat him to death like a dog,” McDuffie’s mother Eula said.

Because of pretrial publicity, the case was moved to Tampa, where an all-white jury voted to acquit the cops on all charges. Miami’s Liberty City erupted in three days of riots that left 18 people—eight white, 10 black—just as dead as Arthur McDuffie.

This blog has been largely devoted to pointing out the weird stuff that happens in Florida, most of it worth at least a chuckle or a gasp of astonishment. Thousands of people follow the Twitter feed called @_FloridaMan for the same reason—it highlights a host of strange and funny stories from the Sunshine State. After the Zimmerman verdict came out Saturday night, he tweeted: “Florida Man Not Guilty Of  Killing Unarmed Teen Who Beat Him In Fight.” That one didn’t seem funny at all—and given the history of Florida juries, it wasn’t all that strange, either.


By: Gregg Pittman, Slate, July 14, 2013

July 15, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Unconscionable But Irrelevant”: Florida GOP Legislature Puts Politics Over People

It seemed like a breakthrough moment. In late February, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who had made hating “Obamacare” his raison d’etre, announced his support for the Medicaid expansion policy in the Affordable Care Act. The Republican governor said at the time, “I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care.”

It was an open question whether Scott’s principal concerns were with the uninsured or the state hospitals he’s been friendly with in the past, it was nevertheless welcome news for health care advocates. Florida’s governor, an unlikely ally, had cleared the way for bringing health care access to 1.3 million Americans, expanding the reach of Obamacare to new heights.

At least, we thought so at the time. What was unexpected was Rick Scott’s own legislative allies ignoring the governor’s wishes and punishing Florida on purpose.

Scott wouldn’t be the one to “deny Floridians” a part of the health care law — but the Florida legislature had other plans. Lawmakers adjourned Friday after passing a budget that does not include funding for a Medicaid expansion. Unless the Republican-controlled legislature comes back for a special session later this year — which some Democrats are calling for — Florida will not expand Medicaid in 2014.

In Florida, where one in five non-elderly residents lack insurance coverage, the consequences are especially large: An estimated 1.3 million Floridians were expected to gain coverage through the Medicaid expansion. About a quarter of those people — Floridians earning between 100 and 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Line — would still be eligible for tax subsidies on the health insurance exchange.

As we talked about in March, Scott isn’t the only Republican governor in this boat. In Ohio and Arizona, GOP state lawmakers remain reluctant to accept Medicaid expansion, regardless of its benefits, and regardless of the wishes of their Republican partner in the governor’s office.

But the move in Florida is especially jarring given the circumstances — the state has an enormous Medicaid-eligible population, and was poised to receive $66 billion in federal funds over the next decade. What’s more, Florida already has struggling public hospitals, which will now be in even worse shape.

A Democratic state senator called the Medicaid decision “unconscionable,” which is true, but apparently irrelevant to state GOP lawmakers.

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 6, 2013

May 8, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Medicaid | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Setting The Bar For Sleazoid Antics”: Florida Legislature Approves Ethics Reform — No Joke!

Promise not to laugh?

An ethics bill was passed last week in Tallahassee.

It’s no joke. The Florida Legislature unanimously approved a law designed to clean up its own sketchy act, and that of elected officials all over the state.

Gov. Rick Scott says he’s “reviewing” the bill. To veto it would be an act of profound cluelessness, but remember who we’re talking about.

The ethics legislation is significant because the concept of enforcing ethical behavior is so foreign to Florida politics. Decades of well-publicized misdeeds and flagrant conflicts of interest have failed to make a moral dent.

A few years ago, lawmakers went through the motions of establishing something called a Commission on Ethics. Most Floridians were unaware of its existence, for good reason. It was a total sham.

The panel could place monetary fines on elected officials for ethical violations, but it wasn’t empowered to collect those fines, which on paper have surpassed $1 million over the last 10 years. Nobody had to pay, so nobody took the commission seriously.

This year things changed. Senate president Don Gaetz announced that ethics reform was a top priority. His bill flew through the Senate on the very first day of the Legislative session.

The House sent it back, after some tweaking by Speaker Will Weatherford, and the new version was adopted without a dissenting vote by the full Legislature.

If Scott signs the bill into law, the Commission on Ethics will actually be able to collect the fines it imposes on wayward officeholders — even garnish their wages, if necessary.

Among other provisions, lawmakers would be banned from voting on any bills that might enhance their own personal finances. While in office, they wouldn’t be allowed to accept any government job. Once out of office, they’d be prohibited from lobbying state agencies for two years.

Such restrictions seem rather basic, even tame, until you consider that we’re basically starting from scratch. In Florida, the bar for sleazoid antics has been set very high.

The impetus for reform isn’t mysterious. As Republicans, Gaetz and Weatherford have seen their party stained by scandals.

Gaetz is from Okaloosa County, home to former House Speaker Ray Sansom. In 2010 Sansom resigned from the Legislature because of ethics complaints and an ongoing corruption probe.

Just two months ago, former GOP chairman Jim Greer pleaded guilty to five felonies, including grand theft and money laundering, in a case involving extravagant misuse of campaign funds and the party’s American Express cards.

Greer’s plea avoided an embarrassing trial that would have sent top Republican politicians to the witness stand. Having dodged that bullet, party leaders then had to watch their lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, abruptly resign after being linked to an Internet gambling cafe operation.

That company, Allied Veterans of the World, allegedly pocketed millions of dollars in charity funds that were supposed to be earmarked to help military veterans. It also donated gobs of money to the election campaigns of many Florida legislators, Republicans and Democrats.

Such headlines tend to produce a climate of fresh ethical awareness.

An interesting component of the new bill is the two-year ban on lobbying after leaving office. Traditionally, politicians who don’t want regular jobs become lobbyists when they return to private life.

House Speaker Weatherford’s predecessor, Dean Cannon, incorporated his own lobby firm a month before exiting the Legislature, and he hit the ground running. All perfectly legal, at the time.

Lots of other ex-House speakers and retired Senate bigshots are also lobbyists, schmoozing former colleagues on behalf of high-paying corporate and municipal clients. This revolving door ratifies the average voter’s cynical view of state government as a game fixed by insiders.

Although two years isn’t very long to wait between serving in public office and privately cashing in, any wait is better than what we’ve got now.

Ethics reform will be only as good as its enforcement, and history tells us not to have high hopes. This legislation is not without wiggle room and loopholes, including a provision for blind trusts that would allow officeholders to conceal the details of their wealth.

However, the bill at least puts some strong words on paper, and opens a pathway for prosecutors.

To help clarify the details and reduce the chances for future indictment, every elected official would be required to take annual ethics training.

You’re laughing again, right?

Sure, there’s something absurd about having to train a politician to be ethical. But, hey, if they can teach a cat to play the piano….


By: Carl Hiaason, The National Memo, April 30, 2013

May 1, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Opportunity Lost To Register A Voter Is An Opportunity Gone Forever”: Federal Judge Blocks Florida Voter Suppression Law

A federal judge blocked much of Florida’s year-old voter suppression law today as an unconstitutional infringement on speech and voting rights.

Last year, the Republican-held Florida legislature passed HB 1355, which imposed harsh new restrictions on third-party voter registration groups, requiring them to turn in completed registration forms 48 hours — to the minute — after completion, or face fines. Outside groups often register hundreds of people at a time and, before this law, had used a quality-control process that took days to ensure the accuracy of submitted forms. With the onerous restrictions now in place, some groups like the League of Women Voters were ultimately forced to cease registration drives in the Sunshine State.

In blocking the new law, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote:

The statute and rule impose a harsh and impractical 48-hour deadline for an organization to deliver applications to a voter registration office and effectively prohibit an organization from mailing applications in. And the statute and rule impose burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional even to the extent they do not violate the NVRA. […]

The plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not issued, first because the denial of a right of this magnitude under circumstances like these almost always inflicts irreparable harm, and second because when a plaintiff loses an opportunity to register a voter, the opportunity is gone forever.

Though state judges and the Department of Justice have already taken steps to prevent voter disenfranchisement, Hinkle’s decision is the first time a federal court has blocked one of the most recent round of state voter suppression laws.

Voters have already begun to experience the effects of new anti-voting laws. Minority voter registration is down significantly from the 2008 election. Among Latinos nationwide, voter registration has dropped five percent; for blacks, registration rates are down seven percent.

New York University’s Brennan Center, which studies voting rights issues, hailed the decision. “Florida’s law and others approved in the past year represent the most significant cutback in voting rights in decades,” said director Wendy Weiser. “Today’s decision will help turn the tide.”


By: Scott Keyes, Think Progress, May 31, 2012

June 1, 2012 Posted by | Civil Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Happens When A Criminal Becomes Governor?

Florida’s wildly-unpopular far-right governor, Rick Scott (R), traveled to a retirement community in Central Florida yesterday known for being the most Republican retirement community in the state. Scott was there to sign his new state budget, which helps demonstrate his priorities and commitment to looking out for his most vulnerable constituents.

In his speech Thursday, Scott omitted many of the serious-sounding programs he cut: homeless veterans, meals for poor seniors, a council for deafness, a children’s hospital, cancer research, public radio, whooping-cough vaccines for poor mothers, or aid for the paralyzed.

These are cuts, by the way, he made from an already-austere budget approved by a Florida legislature dominated by larger Republican majorities. Scott thought they were too generous, so he made sweeping changes though line-item vetoes, which is legal in the state.

All told, Scott’s budget throws 4,500 Floridians out of work as a way to help lower unemployment. No, I don’t understand it, either.

The ridiculous governor might have heard from some of his less-supportive constituents had he not banned Democrats from the bill-signing ceremony.

Members of The Villages Democratic Club were barred from the budget signing by Scott staffers who said the outdoor event in The Villages town square was “private.” Other staffers and Republican operatives scoured the crowd and had Sumter County sheriff’s deputies remove those with anti-Scott signs or liberal-looking pins and buttons. They escorted more than a dozen people off the property.

As Tanya Somanader put it, “Many in the community would likely not be pleased with Scott’s cuts, but those voices remained unheard — mainly because they were banned.”

Atrios added the other day, “I normally resist the temptation to blame “stupid voters” for their leaders, but man, Floridians, what were you thinking….”


By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly-Political Animal, May 27, 2011

May 28, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Conservatives, Democracy, Elections, GOP, Gov Rick Scott, Government, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Seniors, State Legislatures, States, Voters | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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