Baby killer entitled to many appeals; competency question complicates
When Justin Grodin is sentenced in August — either to life in prison or most likely to death by lethal injection if his judge follows the jury’s recommendation — it won’t create closure for the 9-year-old case.
Instead, it will signal the beginning of a new legal journey — an appeals process that will likely take more than a dozen years.
Grodin, 35, was convicted June 17 of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated child abuse in the 2000 death of his 11-month-old stepdaughter Gretchen. Last week, his jury recommended he be sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Lee Circuit Judge Edward Volz Jr. will have to make the decision, while giving the jury’s opinion “great weight.” Grodin will be in court next on Aug. 17 for a hearing where attorneys will argue to Volz, who will likely issue a written ruling explaining his decision. For Volz, this is the first time he will have to make the call.
Getting it right
According to the Florida Department of Corrections, the average stay on Death Row prior to execution is 12.3 years. In 2000, the average was nearly 14 years, according to The News-Press’ archives.
Florida and federal laws give capital murder convicts several avenues of appeal and that’s the way it should be, said Neal Dupree, the state’s capital collateral regional counsel in the south region. Capital Collateral Regional Counsel is an office akin to the public defender’s office, but created to provide representation for defendants sentenced to death during the appeals process.
“I think the courts take it seriously,” Dupree said. “There are a lot of safeguards put in place, because it’s such a serious issue.”
He said appeals are more efficient these days. Decades ago, attorneys were poorly trained to handle capital cases, less training was available and judges had less guidance and structure in making decisions. All those reasons gave attorneys a litany of issues to raise on appeal, Dupree said.
In 2000, however, the Legislature set up more stringent filing date requirements and more structured rules for judges and attorneys, which has speeded up the process, he said.
“The cases are moving much quicker,” he said. “The Legislature made that a priority over the last decade. They’ve really, really streamlined it.”
State Sen. Dave Aronberg, who is running for state attorney general, agreed the Legislature has made capital case efficiency a priority. But, cuts to the court system and an increase in defendants could leave motions sitting unresolved.
“I do think that will be a continuing issue under the budget crunch,” he said.
Aronberg, who is a member of the Florida Commission on Capital Cases and whose district includes part of Lee County, said capital cases require a balance between efficiency and fairness.
“When I speak to people in the community, they are concerned with the lengthy delays in the capital appeals process,” Aronberg said. “The goal is to do justice. You have to do it right.”
Try, try again
In Florida, defendants sentenced to death have many chances to appeal.
The first step will be Grodin getting new attorneys, courtesy of the taxpayers. They will pore through transcripts of the trial and related records.
Grodin’s attorneys will file what’s called a direct appeal, which goes to the Florida Supreme Court. The appeal is automatic and typically attacks errors made during trial, Dupree said. That process can take at least a year. The direct appeal can also be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If a direct appeal is denied, the next area a defendant can attack for relief is called a post-conviction motion. During that process, appeals attorneys will attack Grodin’s trial attorneys for mistakes they made that should result in a new trial. Those issues are decided by a circuit judge and possibly Volz, but can be taken to either the state or country’s high court.
A final appeal is a writ of habeas corpus on the federal level. It attacks the constitutionality of the trial. If all appeals are denied, the defendant can request clemency from the governor.
Ryan Wiggins, deputy communications director for Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, said appeals can be dragged out for any number of reasons, including the issues raised on appeal and scheduling of the courts. Trial courts are not only dealing with cases that haven’t yet gone to trial, but also cases coming back on appeal.
A mentally incompetent defendant cannot be executed, which likely will be an issue raised in Grodin’s appeals. He was found incompetent to stand trial in 2005 and has been deemed competent by Volz since 2007. Doctors have disagreed about Grodin’s understanding of the court system and his attorneys have said he never contributed to his defense.
“It will definitely be an issue on appeal — whether he gets life or death,” said one of Grodin’s attorneys, J.L. “Ray” LeGrande.
Dupree said a judge during Grodin’s appeals could deem him incompetent, putting the process on hold.
“Competency is always an issue,” he said. “If a person’s incompetent, it will be brought up.”
Assistant State Attorney Anthony Kunasek said prosecutors have to balance getting a conviction with making sure it is done properly.
“The conviction doesn’t mean anything if the trial was filled with errors,” said Kunasek, who prosecuted Grodin. “You can cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s and still not anticipate an error that wasn’t intended.”
Kunasek, who has prosecuted several death penalty eligible cases, said he knows handling death penalty cases means anticipating a drawn-out process.
“If you’re dealing with capital cases and if you get a death sentence, that’s going to be a case you’re going to be dealing with for years to come,” he said.
He was convicted of conspiring with Keith Brennan to steal teenager’s Tommy Owens’ car in Cape Coral by luring him to a remote street on March 10, 1995. Brennan used a box cutter to slice Owens’ throat, while Nelson beat him with a baseball bat until he was dead.
• Sentenced to death on Nov. 27, 1996
• Direct appeal filed on Dec. 16, 1996
• Conviction and sentence affirmed on May 27, 1999
• Petition to U.S. Supreme Court
filed Nov. 18, 1999
• Petition denied by the U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 18, 2000
• Post-conviction motion filed on Jan. 5, 2001
• Post-conviction motion is pending
Foster was the leader of the Lords of Chaos, a group of teens whose purpose was to create disorder through criminal acts. On April 30, 1996, the group shot Riverdale High School band teacher Mark Schwebes.
• Sentenced to death on June 17, 1998
• Direct appeal filed on July 6, 1998
• Conviction and sentence affirmed on Sept. 7, 2000
• Post-conviction motion filed Sept. 27, 2001
• Post-conviction motion is pending