Considering that he’s the underdog running against a four-term incumbent, it would be political malpractice for Andrew Warren NOT to make hay out of a damning national report released Wednesday that calls out Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober’s office as being plagued by “persistent problems of overzealous prosecutors, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias.”
The Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project’s report lists Hillsborough County as just one of 16 in the nation — or one half of one percent — that imposed five or more death sentences between 2010 and 2015. It criticized Hillsborough for “systemic deficiencies” and “structural failings” that lead to “the wrongful conviction of innocent people, and the excessive punishment of persons who are young or suffer from severe mental illnesses, brain damage, trauma, and intellectual disabilities.” It also found that the “legacy of racial bias lingers” in Hillsborough’s use of the death penalty.
“It makes no attempt to be fair and balanced. Instead of attempting to consider all the relevant factors in each case, it simply declares the death penalty to be broken, and criticizes prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and jurors based on its own arbitrary criteria and false assumptions,” he said on Wednesday.
Naturally, Warren disagrees.
“This is yet another example of an independent agency giving our current state attorney a failing grade in a critical area of criminal justice,” he said on Thursday. “To be singled out as one of the worst counties in the country is embarrassing and unacceptable. As state attorney, I will fix this and make sure our use of the death penalty is constitutional.”
Ober said that in every death penalty case, his office makes sure to carefully review the evidence and the facts surrounding the case. “We carefully consider all the aggravating and mitigating factors in determining whether it is appropriate to have the jury and judge consider the death penalty as a sentencing option,” he said. “We do not take lightly our responsibility to charge accurately in any case, especially a death penalty case. We seek justice one case at a time. We do not make decisions based on arbitrary standards that a special interest group opposing the death penalty establishes.”
The report spotlighted the case of Michael Mordenti, who was originally prosecuted for murder by Ober’s predecessor. But after the Florida Supreme Court reversed Modenti’s conviction by finding that prosecutors had withheld evidence, Ober’s office tried him with first degree murder charges two more times, despite the fact he said he was innocent and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Ober’s office ultimately offered Mordenti a second-degree murder plea, which would allow him to go free. The report says none of the three juries heard from the victim’s husband, Larry Royston, who told his attorney prosecutors had charged “the wrong man” before Royston eventually committed suicide. Mordenti spent 17 years in prison.
Warren says he finds those facts “disturbing.”
“The death penalty should be reserved for the most egregious cases — not where there are mitigating factors such as mental illness,” he says. “And it should not be used unfairly as leverage to coerce pleas. A person’s life is a not a bargaining chip.”
There is now less than four weeks to go in the state attorney’s race.
Ober has raised slightly more than $300,000 in the race as of Sept. 30, and has more than $190,000 cash-on-hand.
Warren has remained extremely competitive, having raised $276,858, with more than $162,000 cash-on-hand.