State Attorney Angela Corey blasts judge who 'deprived' deathPosted: February 26, 2011 - 12:00amWILL DICKEY/The Times-Union
Judge John Skinner presides over the trial of Kenneth Ray McBride
at the Clay County Courthouse on Feb. 17 in Green Cove Springs.
He has ruled against a jury's vote for the death penalty.
By David Hunt
Citing case law and even the Declaration of Independence, State Attorney Angela Corey is lambasting a judge's decision to let a convicted killer and sexual predator live after a jury called for his death.
Corey filed an eight-page written objection Wednesday in Clay County venting prosecutors' frustration with a rare bench ruling from Circuit Judge John Skinner that went against a jury's 8-4 vote in favor of executing Kenneth Ray McBride, 37.
McBride had pleaded guilty to killing 46-year-old Roberta Laws, a woman he'd dated for 12 years. Laws had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair.
Corey said Friday that Laws was a poor, pitiful and helpless woman who deserved justice for the day in February 2009 that McBride strangled her and buried her near his Middleburg home.
"We have to make sure the community and the public have confidence in the justice system," Corey said. "The people of Florida were deprived of a proper death penalty."
Several people who have seen Skinner work over the decades regard him as a tough jurist, although he has favored defendants in several instances. Last year, Skinner dismissed a murder charge against a Middleburg man who'd successfully argued that he killed a man defending his roommate in 2009.
In 2004, he blocked the death penalty due to a defendant's mental retardation, although he personally described the murder as "unusually vicious and violent." He sentenced the career criminal to life in prison, but he also could have given him as few as 22 years.
Corey said her problem does not go past Skinner's handling of the McBride case. Still, the ruling probed deep into the American psyche, Corey said, as she explained why her objection quoted from the Declaration of Independence.
"It's a historical perspective. People have to trust the process," she said, arguing that Skinner's move was a step backward to the days of oppressive pre-Revolutionary court systems organized under an oppressive British monarchy.
Skinner did not return calls for comment. An aide said he was conducting truancy court Friday afternoon and could not take the phone.
The objection is not an appeal but rather a statement for the record that the State Attorney's Office did not agree with the outcome of the case.
Corey, who did not personally prosecute, said Skinner stopped assistants John Guy and Steve Nelson from arguing case law to support that the jury's verdict would withstand appeals.
She said Skinner overrode the jury's verdict within six minutes of thanking the panel for its service, when normally a judge will follow a jury's sentencing recommendation in a separate hearing several weeks after the penalty deliberations.
What Skinner did is legal. It's just rare. A University of Colorado researcher specializing in capital punishment documented 86 death-to-life overrides in Florida since 1972.
The last 4th Circuit case in recent memory in which a judge overrode a death-sentence recommendation happened in June 1997, when Circuit Judge Henry Davis decided a man convicted as an accomplice in a murder-kidnapping-rape case should not be executed. The judge's order said Darrell L. Davis did not know his accomplice, Robert Thomas, was going to kill Imara Skinner, 23.
In Florida death-penalty cases, juries weigh evidence before making a recommendation as to whether a convicted killer should be executed. The recommendation is based on majority vote.
McBride's jury came back in less than 15 minutes Feb. 17 after hearing testimony from people who believed McBride could be reformed as well as damning evidence that he had been convicted of molesting a young girl in the 1990s.
According to a court transcript, the judge told McBride that he saw evidence of remorse and that he found prison to be the appropriate place for him to die, whether that be by "homicide, suicide or other natural causes."
It was a moment that jolted the courtroom in ways that those present said they had a hard time explaining even a week email@example.com
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