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Florida man’s death sentences in 5 killings upheld by court

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the death sentences imposed on a man convicted of five murders in two separate 2007 robberies, including one in which two women were set on fire.

The justices upheld the convictions and sentences imposed on 38-year-old Leon Davis Jr., who committed the killings just days apart in December 2007. He was convicted of killing the women – one of whom was pregnant – in the fiery robbery of a Lake Wales insurance office and shooting two clerks at a gas station.

The high court also ordered a hearing for death row inmate William Lee Thompson, 64, who pleaded guilty to the March 30, 1976, beating death of Sally Ivester. He was sentenced to death despite having an IQ in the 70 range, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is the level at which it would be unconstitutional to execute a person because of intellectual disability. The Florida court ordered a new hearing to determine Thompson’s mental status.

In the Davis cases, the gas station killings actually happened first but he was not identified as a suspect until after the slayings at the insurance office on Dec. 13, 2007. Davis had been a customer at the insurance office.

Trial testimony showed that Davis, who was encountering financial problems, went to the office with a .357-caliber handgun, duct tape, a gas can and a lighter. He demanded money in a cash register and safe from the office’s two employees, Yvonne Bustamante, 26, and Juanita Luciano, 23, who initially refused.

After binding them to chairs with duct tape, Davis doused both women with gasoline and set them afire. He forced open the register and safe and got about $900, according to trial evidence.

The badly burned women managed to escape and ran outside seeking help. Davis shot Luciano in one hand as she was running, then got into his car and left. The women later died at a hospital, with Luciano’s son born prematurely and dying three days afterward.

Before she died, Bustamante identified Davis as the perpetrator. After local TV stations began showing his picture, Davis turned himself in and was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and other charges.

While awaiting trial, detectives began to suspect Davis killed the gas station clerks on Dec. 7, 2007. The two men, Pravinkumar Patel, 33, and 51-year-old Dashrath Patel, were shot in the head as they changed lettering on the outdoor signs.

The killer did not get away with any cash. Later, investigators determined that Davis’ handgun was the one used to shoot the clerks and tire prints matched his car, according to the court rulings. He was convicted after waiving a jury trial and handed two more death sentences.

In the insurance office case, Justice James E.C. Perry agreed that Davis’ convictions should be upheld but questioned whether the death sentences were proper. Perry said there wasn’t enough evidence to show jurors found sufficient aggravating factors to warrant death unanimously, as the Supreme Court recently ruled is required.

“Even though the jury unanimously recommended the death penalty, whether the jury unanimously found each aggravating factor remains unknown,” Perry wrote. “We simply cannot assume that every juror found every aggravator beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press

Brad King files for Supreme Court opening

State Attorney Brad King of the 5th Judicial Circuit has applied for the upcoming vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court.

King
King

King’s application was received Thursday, according to Tallahassee attorney Jason Unger, chair of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

King — the Republican elected chief prosecutor for Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion, and Sumter counties in Central Florida — is the eighth applicant to replace Justice James E.C. Perry, who’s retiring at the end of the year.

The deadline to apply is 5 p.m. Friday. Gov. Rick Scott will name Perry’s replacement, his first chance to pick a state Supreme Court justice.

The nominating commission is scheduled to interview finalists Nov. 28 and submit six recommendations to Scott by Dec. 13.

King, 59, is a career prosecutor, first elected to the office in 1988. He was re-elected without opposition this year. King received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida, working briefly as a Marion County Sheriff’s deputy.

The other applicants are Circuit Judge Alice L. Blackwell of Orange County, Judge Wendy W. Berger of the 5th District Court of Appeal, Circuit Judge Michelle T. Morley of Sumter County, assistant U.S. attorney Roberta J. Bodnar, Circuit Judge Patricia Strowbridge of Osceola County, Orlando civil-trial defense attorney Dan Gerber, and Chief Judge C. Alan Lawson of the 5th District Court of Appeal.

Because Perry represented that appellate district, applicants must be from that area: Brevard, Citrus, Flagler, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, and Volusia counties.

Alice Blackwell applies for state Supreme Court seat

Circuit Judge Alice L. Blackwell of Orange County, originally a Lawton Chiles appointee, is the latest applicant for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court.

Blackwell
Blackwell

That brings to seven the number of those who have filed to replace Justice James E.C. Perry. He is retiring at the end of the year.

The deadline to apply to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission is 5 p.m. Friday, according to its chair, Tallahassee attorney Jason Unger.

Because Perry represented that appellate district, applicants must be from that area: Brevard, Citrus, Flagler, Hernando, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, and Volusia counties.

Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, will name Perry’s replacement, making it his first opportunity to pick a state Supreme Court justice. Now, Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston the only reliable conservative votes on the seven-member court.

Then-Gov. Chiles, a Democrat, first appointed her to the bench in 1991, according to her Ballotpedia profile.

In 1997, she was the first woman in the 9th Judicial Circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties, to be named administrative judge of the civil division. She now handles complex civil litigation.

Blackwell received her undergraduate degree from Furman University and a law degree from the University of South Carolina, according to her official bio.

The other applicants are:

Wendy W. Berger, appointed by Gov. Scott to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach in late 2012. She was originally appointed to the circuit bench by Jeb Bush.

— Circuit Judge Michelle T. Morley, who sits in Sumter County. She was elected to the 5th Judicial Circuit bench in 2006 and re-elected in 2012.

Roberta J. Bodnar, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida.

— Circuit Judge Patricia Strowbridge, who sits on the family-law bench at the Osceola County Courthouse. Scott appointed her last year.

— Orlando civil-trial defense attorney Dan Gerber, a partner with the law firm of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell. His complex-litigation practice focuses on “toxic tort, class actions, commercial, product liability, and governmental affairs,” according to his official bio.

— C. Alan Lawson, chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal. When he applied for a high-court opening in 2009, Lawson was backed by “religious conservatives and the National Rifle Association,” according to the Tampa Tribune.

The nominating commission is scheduled to interview finalists Nov. 28 and submit six recommended replacements to Scott by Dec. 13.

 

 

Six applications now in for state Supreme Court vacancy

Appellate judge Wendy W. Berger and Circuit Judge Michelle T. Morley are the latest applicants for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court.

That brings to six the number of those who have filed to replace Justice James E.C. Perry, who is retiring at the end of the year.

The latest applications were confirmed by Jason Unger, chair of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

Berger, a Jacksonville native, was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach in late 2012.

Morley, who sits in Sumter County, was elected to the 5th Judicial Circuit bench in 2006 and re-elected in 2012.

Scott, a Republican, will name Perry’s replacement, making it his first opportunity to pick a state Supreme Court justice.

The seven-member state Supreme Court often splits 5-2 on matters of public policy, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston the only reliable conservative votes.

At first blush, Berger has conservative bona fides.

She received her undergraduate and law degrees from Florida State University, then served as an assistant state attorney in Northeast Florida’s 7th Judicial Circuit from 1993-2000, according to her official bio.

Berger later was assistant general counsel to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, until he appointed her a circuit judge in 2005.

She and her husband, Larry, live in St. Augustine with their two children.

Morley, a Bronx native, received her undergraduate degree from the University of Tampa and her law degree from the Stetson University College of Law, according to her Ballotpedia profile. She practiced family law before becoming a judge.

Her interest in becoming a judge was sparked by her experience as a guardian ad litem, according to a 2006 St. Petersburg Times profile. Guardians represent the interests of children in court proceedings, especially in divorce and juvenile dependency matters.

She represented “a little girl whose parents were killed in a car crash,” the Times story said.

“This was the first time I didn’t really take a side,” Morley told the paper. “I was advocating for this child, and that is when the light bulb went on.”

She said she “prides herself as a good listener who can absorb both sides of a case: ‘I get much more gratification out of being in the middle and doing the right thing and not just what I’m being paid or asked to do.’ “

They join four others in the running to replace Perry:

Roberta J. Bodnar, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida.

— Circuit Judge Patricia Strowbridge, who sits on the family-law bench at the Osceola County Courthouse. She was appointed a judge by Gov. Rick Scott last year.

— Orlando civil-trial defense attorney Dan Gerber, a partner with the law firm of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell. His complex-litigation practice focuses on “toxic tort, class actions, commercial, product liability, and governmental affairs,” according to his official bio.

— C. Alan Lawson, chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal. When he applied for a high-court opening in 2009, Lawson was backed by “religious conservatives and the National Rifle Association,” according to the Tampa Tribune.

The nominating commission is scheduled to interview finalists Nov. 28 and submit six recommended replacements to Scott by Dec. 13.

Federal prosecutor applies for state Supreme Court

A federal prosecutor has become the fourth applicant for a seat on the Florida Supreme Court.

Roberta J. Bodnar, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Florida, filed on Tuesday, according to Jason Unger, chair of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

Bodnar, who works in Ocala, was admitted to the Florida bar in 1993, the same year she graduated from the University of Florida’s law school.

The Middle District stretches from Fort Myers north through Jacksonville. A. Lee Bentley, III is the current U.S. Attorney for the district.

She has worked a number of prosecutions related to online child pornography.

Bodnar was lead government counsel on a electronic-privacy case that reached the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A panel split 2-1, upholding law enforcement’s search of a mobile phone for pornographic images of children.

Bodnar joins three others for the seat being vacated at the end of the year by retiring Justice James E.C. Perry:

— Circuit Judge Patricia Strowbridge, who sits on the family-law bench at the Osceola County Courthouse. She was appointed a judge by Gov. Rick Scott last year.

— Orlando civil-trial defense attorney Dan Gerber, a partner with the law firm of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell. His complex-litigation practice focuses on “toxic tort, class actions, commercial, product liability, and governmental affairs,” according to his official bio.

— C. Alan Lawson, chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal. When he applied for a high-court opening in 2009, Lawson was backed by “religious conservatives and the National Rifle Association,” according to the Tampa Tribune.

Scott, a Republican, will name Perry’s replacement, making it his first opportunity to pick a state Supreme Court justice.

The seven-member state Supreme Court often splits 5-2 on matters of public policy, with Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston the only reliable conservative votes.

Voters in Florida face crucial solar power decisions

Voters in sun-bathed Florida will face a decision Tuesday that could weigh heavily on the use — and cost — of solar power in the state.

The solar power industry is opposed to Amendment 1, a proposal to amend the state constitution that will appear on the ballot as “Florida Solar Energy Subsidies and Personal Solar Use Initiative.”

Utilities — including Florida Power & Light Co. — have spent upward of $20 million trying to get the amendment on the ballot.

The two sides are sharply divided. The solar industry says it could penalize users of sun-derived power who sell their excess energy back to the grid. Utility companies say the amendment would prevent non-solar users from subsidizing the solar users who profit from the excess energy that they produce.

The Florida Supreme Court narrowly ruled in March that the amendment can appear on the ballot. Critics had sued to get it removed, claiming it was too confusing and would mislead voters.

On Friday, the court rejected a request to invalidate the measure.

The amendment would also put into the constitution a right already enjoyed by Floridians to produce solar power. Critics say this is meant to deceive voters into thinking the amendment is pro-solar. The amendment also reaffirms the government’s right to protect consumers by stating that they are not “required to subsidize” access to the grid by individual solar user.

Passage requires the approval of 60 percent of voters casting ballots.

___

WHAT IS THE SUBSIDIZING ISSUE ABOUT?

The practice of selling individually produced solar energy back to the grid is called net metering. It treats people who install solar panels on their rooftops like mini power plants, paying or crediting them for the electricity they produce and send into the grid. Florida law currently allows for net metering, though utilities set the price.

Solar supporters say net metering benefits all energy consumers since the grid receives more clean energy while solar owners can get paid for the extra power they provide. Also, if enough solar is installed on rooftops it would reduce the need to build more power plants in Florida, a cost shared among all ratepayers.

But utilities around the nation have said net metering is unfair because it benefits private solar owners over non-solar ratepayers.

As more people install solar and “net meter,” or sell energy to the grid, Duke and other utility companies believe they should also pay more for use of the company’s transmission infrastructure. The solar industry says utilities simply want to protect their monopoly in Florida.

Duke, Florida Power & Light Co., Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power Co. have spent more than $20 million to get Amendment 1 on the ballot, according to state campaign finance records.

___

WHY DOES THE SOLAR INDUSTRY OPPOSE AMENDMENT 1?

The solar industry and other groups like the League of Women Voters say Amendment 1 is confusingly written to trick voters into thinking it’s a pro-solar law.

Raul Vergara, owner of Cutler Bay Solar Solutions, a small solar panel installer in South Florida that has grown from one employee four years ago to 12 now, says if Amendment 1 passes it will be devastating for his business.

“Without the net metering you’re taking away the economic incentive,” he said.

Amendment 1 is also opposed by the Solar Energy Industries Association and a broad coalition of environmental groups like Greenpeace, the Libertarian Party of Florida and politicians like former Vice President Al Gore.

___

WHY IS AMENDMENT 1 ON THE BALLOT?

Amendment 1 was funded by the utilities as a counter to another solar-related ballot initiative that failed to qualify earlier this year.

The failed initiative — backed by an unlikely coalition including the Tea Party, solar industry and Sierra Club — sought to allow solar companies to sell energy directly to consumers, which is currently illegal in Florida.

Florida remains one of only four states where it’s illegal for anyone other than a utility to sell power, under a monopoly system set up decades ago.

Even though the other amendment failed to make the ballot this year, Amendment 1 supporters decided to move to place it on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Amendment 1’s language, called deceptive by critics, was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, but dissenting Justice Barbara Pariente said it was “masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative.”

___

IS THIS RELATED TO THE OTHER SOLAR AMENDMENT THAT PASSED IN AUGUST?

No. That was Amendment 4, which changed the law to reduce property and other taxes on solar systems in an effort to make solar power more affordable in Florida.

It passed in August with more than 70 percent support.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Patricia Strowbridge latest applicant for Supreme Court

Patricia Strowbridge, appointed a trial-court judge by Gov. Rick Scott just last year, has become the third applicant for the upcoming vacancy on the Florida Supreme Court.

Her application was received over the weekend, said Jason Unger, chair of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, on Monday morning.

Strowbridge
Strowbridge

Strowbridge, with a long background in adoption and family law, was named last March to the 9th Judicial Circuit. She sits on the family law bench in the Osceola County Courthouse, according to her official webpage.

The 55-year-old joins Orlando civil-trial defense attorney Dan Gerber and 5th District appellate chief judge C. Alan Lawson as the initial applicants for the seat now held by Justice James E.C. Perry.

Republican Scott will name Perry’s replacement, making it his first opportunity to pick a state Supreme Court justice.

Perry, 72, had announced his retirement effective Dec. 30. He joined the court in March 2009, having been appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Perry and Peggy A. Quince are currently the only black members of the seven-justice court.

Before Scott appointed her to the state judiciary, Strowbridge had been legal services director for A Chosen Child, Inc. since 2014 and was its executive director from 1999-2014, according to a governor’s office press release.

She had previously lost an election for circuit judge to Diana Tennis in 2014.

Strowbridge, a mother of five, was married to Bob Wattles, another 9th Circuit judge, who died of cancer in 2010.

They adopted their oldest daughter as a 12-year-old out of the child-protection system, according to an interview she gave the Orlando Political Observer in 2014.

“I have discernment that allows me to recognize when someone has a frustration boil over that simply requires someone to ‘hear’ them, versus someone that engages in power dynamics that are dangerous to others around them,” she told the website. “Many times, emotions can be diffused simply by respectfully listening to what the person is trying to say.”

Strowbridge also had been the owner of the Adoption, Surrogacy and Family Law Firm, P.A. since 1989, it said. She served on the board of directors of the Florida Adoption Council since 2002.

She has an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and a law degree from Georgetown University.

“Patricia has demonstrated true dedication during her more than two decades of working with Florida families,” Scott said in a statement upon her appointment. “I know she will use her experience to continue serving families honorably.”

The nominating commission is scheduled to interview finalists Nov. 28 and submit six recommended replacements to Scott by Dec. 13.

Second application in for Fla. Supreme Court opening

And then there were two.

Gerber
Gerber

Orlando civil-trial defense attorney Dan Gerber has become the second applicant for an upcoming opening on the Florida Supreme Court.

Jason Unger, chair of the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission, confirmed the name Monday morning.

The 51-year-old Gerber joins conservative appellate judge C. Alan Lawson as the only applicants so far for the seat now held by Justice James E.C. Perry.

Lawson is chief judge of the 5th District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach. Gerber’s brother, Jonathan D. Gerber, sits on the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach.

Perry, 72, had announced his retirement effective Dec. 30. He joined the court in March 2009, having been appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. Perry and Peggy A. Quince are currently the only black members of the seven-justice court.

Both Lawson and Gerber made the short list that year, losing out to Perry for the appointment.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott will name Perry’s replacement, making it his first opportunity to pick a state Supreme Court justice.

Gerber is a partner with the law firm of Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell. The National Law Journal named him a “Top 40 under 40” attorney in 2002.

His complex-litigation practice focuses on “toxic tort, class actions, commercial, product liability, and governmental affairs,” according to his official bio.

“In his toxic tort and mass tort practice, Dan represents manufacturers of chemical products in claims alleging injury from chemical exposure,” it says. “Included among his clients are national manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements, pesticides, and industrial chemicals as well as pest control companies.”

A profile on the firm’s website explained that Gerber, who once considered “studying biology in a rainforest,” has “the ability to understand the science behind the case.”

“I like to say that I understand (it) well enough to explain it to judges and jurors without boring them or losing them,” Gerber said in the article.

He also was selected by then-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum “to serve as one of two private attorneys on the State of Florida Legal Advisory Panel in response to the BP oil spill,” the bio says.

Gerber, a baseball fan who’s married with three sons, received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida.

The nominating commission is scheduled to interview finalists on Nov. 28 and submit six recommended replacements to Scott by Dec. 13.

Florida Supreme Court won’t toss out solar ballot question

The Florida Supreme Court rejected a request to invalidate a proposed solar-power constitutional amendment that’s supported by power companies.

The court made its decision Friday, four days before the election and after 5.2 million votes had already been cast by mail and at early voting sites.

The challenge came after a leading proponent of Amendment 1 was recorded saying that the measure was written to appear pro-solar, even though it could end up restricting solar growth in Florida by raising costs.

Solar-power advocates asked the court Wednesday to revisit a previous ruling which found that the ballot summary was not misleading. The court unanimously denied the request.

Amendment 1 seeks to change the state constitution to say consumers shouldn’t “subsidize” solar growth.

foreclosures

Florida Supreme Court decision will cause ‘new wave’ of foreclosures

When a mortgage foreclosure action gets dismissed by a Florida court, it resets the clock on the state’s five-year statute of limitations, the Supreme Court decided Thursday.

That means the lender can try again to get paid, as long as it’s within the next five-year period and the borrower had started paying again and then stopped.

“I think this decision will cause a new wave of foreclosure cases to be filed in the next 12-24 months,” said Jonathan Kline, a Westin attorney who practices primarily in foreclosure defense. “Basically, banks are getting a do-over.”

He added the ruling applies to “tens of thousands” of foreclosures in South Florida alone, which was hard-hit by the Great Recession of 2007-09.

Florida was ranked No. 1 in the country for completed foreclosures in 2015-16, with 55,000 actions, according to real estate data tracking firm CoreLogic.

In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure to speed up the state’s residential mortgage foreclosure process. The idea was to “put (foreclosed) homes back onto the housing market and allow Florida families who have experienced a foreclosure to begin working to repair their credit and finances,” the governor said in a signing letter.

Thursday’s decision, which consolidated three separate cases involving U.S. Bank, involves “standard residential mortgages.”

“When a mortgage foreclosure action is involuntarily dismissed … the effect is revocation of the acceleration, which then reinstates the (borrower’s) right to continue to make payments,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote.

But that also revives “the right of the (lender) to seek acceleration and foreclosure based on (any) subsequent defaults,” she wrote.

An “acceleration” is a “term in a loan agreement that requires the borrower to pay off the loan immediately,” according to the Legal Information Institute. “For example, most home mortgages have an acceleration clause that is triggered if the borrower misses too many payments.”

The court’s opinion says just because lenders try to accelerate the loan once doesn’t mean they can’t do it again, especially if the borrower screwed up his own second chance.

A bank’s “attempted prior acceleration in a foreclosure action that was involuntarily dismissed did not trigger the statute of limitations to bar future foreclosure actions based on separate defaults,” the opinion says.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and Justices Charles CanadyJames E.C. Perry, and Peggy A. Quince concurred in Pariente’s decision.

Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis concurred in result only, meaning they agreed with the decision but not its legal analysis.

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