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December 22, 2016

Supreme Court: Death penalty cases finalized before 2002 won't be re-heard

@MichaelAuslen and @ByKristenMClark

Death sentences for nearly 200 prisoners were cemented Thursday after the Florida Supreme Court ruled they are not eligible for new hearings or lower sentences under a revamped death penalty law.

In a 6-1 ruling, the court decided that more than half of the 386 inmates currently on death row could see their sentences change. But the justices also said recent rulings throwing out parts of the state’s death penalty law would not apply retroactively to inmates whose cases were finalized before a key U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2002.

The court also lifted a stay on the execution of Mark James Asay, originally scheduled for March 17 of this year. Asay was convicted in 1988 of killing two men, Robert Booker and Robert McDowell, in Jacksonville.

It’s a signal that executions could begin again after an 11-month hiatus while Florida’s death penalty was shrouded in uncertainty.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office is “reviewing the ruling,” spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said. The state has executed 23 people while Scott has been in office, more than any governor since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976.

Thursday’s ruling caps a tumultuous year for Florida’s death penalty. The only execution in 2016 was that of Oscar Ray Bolin, Jr. on Jan. 7. He was executed just five days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s death penalty unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, prompting the Legislature to re-write sentencing laws.

Then, in October, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the Hurst ruling required a unanimous vote by the jury to sentence someone to death. Current law requires a supermajority vote by 10 of the 12 members of a jury.

Deciding how to apply those rulings to the 386 prisoners on death row has been a “thorny issue,” the justices wrote, requiring them to balance fairness and inmates’ constitutional rights with the principle that decisions by judges and juries are final.

Critics of the ruling, including some justices on the deeply divided court, say drawing a line in the sand on the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 2002 decision in Ring v. Arizona is arbitrary. That case required that juries find specific aggravating factors before sentencing someone to death and called Florida’s death penalty laws into question.

Just one justice, who retires Dec. 30, disagreed entirely with the majority. Justice James Perry wrote that all death row inmates should be entitled to new sentences.

“(The ruling) creates an arbitrary application of law to two groups of similarly situated persons,” he wrote. “Coupled with Florida’s troubled history in applying the death penalty in a discriminatory manner, I believe that such an application is unconstitutional.”

The court’s decision could also lead to more confusion about Florida’s death penalty in the future, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“That’s not a principled basis to decide whether someone should live or die,” he said. “And that only adds additional fuel to the cries of death penalty opponents that the United States is incapable of carrying out capital punishment in anything but an arbitrary manner.”

In a second ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court granted a new sentencing hearing to another death-row inmate, John F. Mosley, who was convicted of killing his girlfriend and infant son in 2004. His sentence was final after the Ring decision, unlike Asay’s.

Trump is in Florida, but it's not clear if he's meeting with state officials

@MichaelAuslen

President-elect Donald Trump is spending Christmas in the Sunshine State, but it's not clear if he and his team will meet with any Florida officials while he's here.

Trump transition spokesman Jason Miller said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters that he was "not aware of any specific meetings that are happening."

"Obviously, Florida is a very important state to the president-elect, a place where he spends a lot of time," Miller said. "But as far as if there's anything more specific that's happening on this particular trip, I don't have anything to share at the moment."

Trump is spending Christmas at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago.

The trip comes as several Florida politicians are reportedly being considered for administration jobs, including Attorney General Pam Bondi and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller. As well, there are any number of policy reasons Trump or his advisers would want to meet with elected and appointed officials from the nation's third-largest state.

Trump is friends with Gov. Rick Scott, and two state representatives played key roles in his election: Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, was co-chairman of the Florida campaign, and Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, chairs the Republican Party of Florida.

Former prisons investigator accused of covering up abuse takes job with Leon County sheriff

Beasley

via @jknipebrown

Jeffery Beasley, who was accused of covering up and thwarting investigations into human rights abuses in the Florida prison system, has resigned, the Miami Herald has learned.

Beasley, the former inspector general for the Florida Department of Corrections, has accepted a post as chief of investigations for the Leon County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Walt McNeil confirmed Wednesday.

“As is often the case in state government, in particular positions, sometimes you have to carry a burden for higher levels of state government," McNeil said. “I make no excuses for him, but I believe his background and experience and the level of professionalism he displayed throughout his career speaks volumes."

McNeil said Beasley will start Jan. 3.

Beasley’s departure comes a little more than a year after he stepped down from his top cop post at the embattled state prisons agency. In October 2015, he was given a new title — director of investigations — despite months of widespread criticism and allegations that he and others in his office failed to investigate and, in some instances, even derailed cases involving the abuse and even death of prisoners in Florida prisons.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Jeffery Beasley, then-Inspector General of the Florida prison system, testified before lawmakers in 2014. The Florida Channel.

Florida Republican legislative leaders host January fundraiser for Artiles, Diaz

Artiles-diaz fundraiser invite@ByKristenMClark

When the Florida Legislature returns to Tallahassee in early January for its first committee work week ahead of the 2017 session, two Miami-Dade Republican lawmakers will also use the time to get a head-start on raising money for their 2018 races.

And they'll have the help of some powerful party backers.

Newly elected Miami state Sen. Frank Artiles and Hialeah state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. -- who's running for a Florida Senate seat in 2018 -- are planning a joint fundraising reception for Jan. 10 at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee, according to an invitation obtained by the Herald/Times.

The host committee for the reception includes five influential Republicans, four of whom are current or future chamber leaders: current Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart, Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano, Trilby Sen. Wilton Simpson, Miami Lakes state Rep. Jose Oliva and Hialeah Sen. René García.

As Senate president, Negron is in charge of the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money to assist top party candidates. Galvano and Simpson are both on track to be future Senate presidents after Negron: Galvano in the 2018-2020 term and Simpson in 2020-2022. And, Oliva is poised to take over as House speaker in 2018.

García's presence on the host committee indicates an endorsement of Diaz as his successor. García is in his final term representing Senate District 36 and Diaz, a three-term representative, is running for that seat.

Expect that Artiles and Diaz won't be the only ones fundraising in January. Committee weeks often attract evening fundraising receptions since lawmakers are already convened in Tallahassee. House and Senate rules bar lawmakers from fundraising during the official legislative session, which in 2017 begins in March.

PolitiFact: How researchers are scrambling to combat disease-carrying mosquitoes

House_on_stiltsJonG

@jonzgreenberg

In a rural town 175 miles west of the Indian Ocean, a group of young researchers are pitting their wits against a new twist in an ancient disease.

Mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite are adapting to the primary method of thwarting them. Scientists are racing to keep up.

The struggle goes beyond the fight against malaria, a disease that infects about 200 million people each year. It has implications for fighting viruses like Zika and others we haven’t heard about yet.

Arnold Mmbando, a 29-year-old Tanzanian biotechnology specialist at the Ifakara Health Institute, enters a high-ceiling wood frame structure researchers call the "vectorsphere." It includes a full-size mock hut, complete with a garden.

"No wild mosquitoes can get in here," Mmbando says. "The only mosquitoes here are the ones we raise ourselves."

Nearby, a black wooden box about two feet on a side sits in front of the hut’s door. Louvers on the sides open to the air. While it looks different, many Americans would recognize the black box’s function. It’s a solar powered bug zapper. Inside, a metal mesh is wired to a small solar cell on the lid. The box is baited with a concoction that smells like a human to the bugs.

"This is locally made here by local carpenters," Mmbando says. "We only imported this solar panel because that’s the one thing we can’t make here."

Keep reading Jon Greenberg's story from PolitiFact Global News Service, a partnership with AfricaCheck.org.

December 21, 2016

Miami police watchdog files to run for city commission

Suarez

@NewsbySmiley

As a handful of well-known players decide whether to run for the Miami commission seat to be vacated this November by Frank Carollo, a fourth candidate has officially joined the race.

Daniel Suarez, a long-time member of the city's Civilian Investigative Panel, told the Miami Herald he resigned from the board Tuesday and opened up a campaign account the following day (Miami law requires candidates resign from city board positions in order to run). The 27-year-old Naval reserve petty officer said his time on the police watchdog agency convinced him to run.

"I want to make some real change in the city. I want to move forward with real police oversight and engage our youth," said Suarez, who expects to make transparency and community involvement staples of his campaign.

Suarez said he plans to only raise money in small donations from residents, and get his name out by pounding the pavement.

"I have no problem walking every single block in my district introducing myself to everyone," he said.

Suarez joins a race that already features declared candidates Alex DominguezAlfonso "Alfie" Leon, and Miguel Soliman.

Among those who say they're on the fence: Zoraida Barreiro (the wife of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro), former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Tommy Regalado (the son of Mayor Tomas Regalado), and former Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez.

A fifth rumored candidate, former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo (Frank's brother), declined to say Wednesday whether he has any interest in the seat, or if he'd rule out a run.

Clinton's team feared Rubio more than Trump - until it was too late

via @learyreports

It’s not news that Hillary Clinton’s campaign viewed Marco Rubio with some fear. Democratic emails apparently stolen by the Russians showed Clinton’s team was impressed with the Floridian. “He gives a good speech, and sounded more reasonable, populist than a GOP candidate …” read one email.

Now comes evidence that Clinton considered him more of a threat than Donald Trump — if the size of opposition research books mean anything.

The Trump oppo book was a mere 157 pages, while one for Ted Cruz was 201 pages. Rubio’s was 431 pages.

The details were contained in a Vanity Fair story about the “desperate, year-long hunt to find Donald Trump’s rumored Apprentice outtakes.”

While Cruz was clearly a possible contender, many in the room agreed that Rubio, with his youth and charisma, posed the most considerable challenge. And then there was Trump, who was characterized in the meeting under “the four B’s”: a bully, a bigot, a bad businessman, and—as some staffers noted—not a billionaire. (There was discussion of a fifth B, which, in typical Democratic jargon, was “blithe.”) Trump’s oppo book was slim not because Clinton staffers had missed details regarding his divorces or corporate bankruptcies. It was short because they didn’t think he had much of a chance of winning the G.O.P. nomination.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott writes to Raúl Castro: 'Allow a new era of freedom and opportunity'

Govscott01wmm

@ByKristenMClark

Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday, calling for him to change course and “allow a new era of freedom and opportunity for Cuba.”

Scott referenced the celebrations in Miami after the death of Fidel Castro last month, saying the demonstrations “represented the hope for an end to the decades of torture, repression, incarceration and death that you and your brother have caused the people of Cuba.”

But, Scott noted, Raúl Castro appears to be continuing his brother’s legacy — with recent examples that include the arrest of Cuban artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado, who mocked Fidel’s death in an online video.

“After Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba, you suggested that you may return to the church and pray again. My prayer for you and the Cuban people is that you listen to Pope Francis and focus on bringing absolute freedom and democracy to Cuba,” Scott wrote. “I pray that you open Cuba to freedom of the press and religion; release all political prisoners; provide unfettered access to the internet; allow ownership of land; provide reparations to those whose property was confiscated; bring all Cuban military home and allow for free and fair elections with international supervision.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald

Bittel looks to Florida Dems chairmanship after beating Bullard in Miami-Dade race

DEM ELEX b epf

via @NewsbySmiley

Following weeks of acrimony and intrigue, a divided Miami-Dade Democratic Party named Coconut Grove developer Stephen Bittel to a local leadership position over former state Sen. Dwight Bullard late Tuesday night — priming the progressive donor for a run at the state party chair while potentially furthering fractions within the party.

Bittel, who was forced by party rules to seek the obscure post of Miami-Dade County state committeeman in order to run for Florida chairman next month, cut a polarizing path to the position. Amid cheers and a smattering of boos, he sought Tuesday to unify a boisterous crowd and downplay accusations that local leaders engineered his ascension through back-room deals.

“The urgent need for progressive activism runs in my veins, runs in my family,” Bittel told the hundreds packed into the cavernous former Wynwood headquarters of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. “This will be my first and last election … It’s time to bring everyone together.”

With 413 votes cast in a field of eight, Bittel beat Bullard — who missed Tuesday’s event while cruising with family — by a count of 250 to 161. He’ll now face Alan Clendenin in a bid to take control of the state party following chairwoman Allison Tant’s decision to step down.

“This race has gotten national attention because everyone knows it’s a launch pad for state chair,” said Bittel, 60, who made his fortune as chairman of Miami commercial real estate firm Terranova Corp.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

As Floridians wait for help saving homes, state agency spends $52K on filet mignon dinner

via @TB_Times' @susanskate

To show appreciation for lenders who work with low-income borrowers, Florida's housing agency hosted a $52,000 dinner that featured filet mignon, broiled lobster tails and a bar stocked with "deluxe brand liquors.''

At a reception for its own board members, the agency spent $300 for a bartender, $425 for a pork carving station and $420 for a "Spanish charcuterie station.''

And a time when thousands of Floridians were waiting for help in saving their homes, the agency awarded a total of nearly $443,000 in bonuses to its employees.

Those are among the findings in a critical state audit of the Florida Housing Finance Corp. Released this month, the report cites several areas in which it said the organization needs to better account for its spending, improve controls over electronic fund transfers and ensure the security of confidential personal information.

More here.