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State joins death row suit

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State joins death row suit


Death row
Death row inmates
Due process of law


The article discusses Florida joining the lawsuit against the federal government to stop the federal government from mandating the appointment of lawyers to death row inmates for appeals. The article also accounts for the different opinions of state officials and agencies on the suit and fractured stance on the state's role in the suit.


Loughlin, Sean


Gainesville Sun


HIST 298, University of Mary Washington




The materials in this online collection are held by Special Collections, Simpson Library, University of Mary Washington and are available for educational use. For this purpose only, you may reproduce materials without prior permission on the condition that you provide attribution of the source.






Gainesville, Florida.

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STARKE — Even though Florida already appoints lawyers to defend Death Row asking that the U.S. Supreme Court not make the practice mandatory.

On Monday, the high court agreed to hear a Virginia case in which that states is appealing a federal circuit court ruling requiring the state to provide attorneys for indigent inmates on death row who are appealing their convictions.

The case involves Joseph M. Giarratano, who was convicted and sentenced in 1979 for murdering a woman and raping and murdering her 15-year old daughter. His conviction and sentence were upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1980. He is one of nearly 40 inmates on death row.

A district judge ruled that Virginia was not giving inmates meaningful access to the courts and ordered the state to appoint personal lawyers for individual inmates, rather than have inmates rely on law libraries or on a small group of lawyers to represent a number of prisoners simultaneously.

In the Florida case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, the high court recognized the right of the indigent to have legal representation supplied by the state at the trial level. So far, that right has not been extended to appeals. Defendant Clarence Earl Gideon was documented in a book written by Athony Lewis, a columnist for The New York Times. The book was the basis of a movie where the role of Gideon was played by Henry Fonda.

Florida’s support of Virginia’s position is detailed in a 13-page brief the state’s attorney general filed with the Supreme Court last month. The state of Georgia filed a separate brief with the other states.

In the amicus curiae — commonly called a “fiend of the court” brief — the state of Florida maintains death row inmates have no constitutional right to attorneys on appeals.

The position has bewildered the director of the Office of Capital Collateral Representative, the Florida state agency that represents most of the state’s 290 death row inmates on appeals.

Director Larry Spalding said there is an inconsistency with the states having such an agency and then questioning the state’s constitutional obligation to death row inmates. Of the states that filed briefs on Virginia’s behalf, Florida is the only one with an agency that provides attorneys to death row inmates on appeal.

“The state of Florida does not have a unified position before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Spalding said. “I am giving serious consideration to CCR filing an amicus brief on behalf of Giarrantano in support of a constitutional right.”

Asked why death row inmates should be entitled to attorneys on appeals when such a principles does not apply to other convicts, Spalding replied: “Because there’s a difference between sitting in jail and being put in an electric chair.”

The state’s attorney general office disputed the notion of inconsistency or the suggestion that the brief is an effort to dismantle the agency. Gov. Bob Martinez has been an outspoken critic of the Office of Capital Collateral Representative, having called for several investigations of the office. A specially appointed commission recently found no evidence of unethical conduct, but a criminal investigation continues.

Carolyn Snurkowski, an assistant attorney general for the state, said establishing a new constitutional right for inmates could complicate an appeals process that already takes years.

Specifically, Snurkowski said, if death row inmates have a constitutional right to legal representation, they could then question the competency of their lawyers on further appeals.

“Can they come back and challenge the assistance” is the question concerning the state, Snurkowski said.

Mark Menser, another assistant attorney general, said the Supreme Court has never set such a right for death row inmates in federal courts.

“It should be left up to the states,” Menser said. “The federal government can’t impose a duty on the states it doesn’t impose on itself.”

Snurkowski would not speculate how the court’s ruling, which is not expected until next year, would affect the Florida agency.

But the brief, written by Menser, contains one passage where the state worries about “the creation of new grounds for collateral attack (such as ineffective collateral counsel) or the creation of new ‘due process’ rights.”

“Florida will have to give serious consideration to abandoning the project,” the brief read.

Rep. Everett Kelly, D-Tavares, chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, Probation and Parole Committee, said if the Supreme Court rules against recognizing a constitutional right for inmates, the legislature would have to consider the future of the agency.

“If we don’t have to do it, why do it?” Kelly said. “I’m just not sure I would require legal counsel for them (death row inmates), most especially if they’re able to afford lawyers.”

Michael Mello, a professor at the Vermont Law School, has written about the availability of attorneys for death row inmates.

“It’s desperate,” he said. “There are people less than two weeks away from being executed who don’t have attorneys. The crisis that led to the creation of CCR in Florida is a crisis being replicated throughout the country.”

But Jon Peck, press secretary for the governor, said Florida’s response to the crisis in 1985 was voluntary — and that is the key.

“There are times when you do something, but you don’t want it mandated,” Peck said.

Original Format

Newspaper article

Vol. No./Issue No.

Vol. 113, No. 120

Contributor of the Digital Item

Sundberg, Eric

Student Editor of the Digital Item

Williams, Megan




Loughlin, Sean, “State joins death row suit,” HIST298, accessed May 16, 2021, https://hist298.umwhistory.org/items/show/123.