Florida editorial roundup
By The Associated Press
Sep. 20, 2017
MIAMI (AP) — Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Miami Herald on the eight who died at a nursing home after Hurricane Irma:
Hurricanes are thoughtless and violent. It is only realistic to say that some deaths can be expected during, and especially after.
But the needless and tragic deaths of eight elderly people Wednesday after apparently being left in sweltering temperatures in a nursing home/rehabilitation center has shocked South Florida and with good reason.
With such a high body count, there is little doubt that Irma turned the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills into a living hell — and now it seems clear that no one did enough to save those trapped inside without air conditioning — or called for help in time.
The roll call of victims and their ages are heartbreaking: They were parents, grandparents. They were loved ones: Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Mendieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 70; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; Betty Hibbard, 84; and Albertina Vega, 99.
The causes of their deaths are yet to be determined, but indications are that they were related to the loss of air conditioning during the storm and in the days after. Also yet to be determined is how long these vulnerable people — either residents or recovering from surgery — were left in such stifling heat and, most important, why.
Gov. Rick Scott announced that the Florida Department of Children & Families and the Agency for Health Care Administration have begun an investigation. Hollywood Police Chief Tom Sanchez immediately called it a "criminal" probe. Ditto for Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.
They all have one goal: determining who is to blame for the deaths of these elderly people. And, criminal charges should follow should investigations nail down what looks for all the world like willful negligence. The nursing home has a poor history of inspection results and is affiliated with a South Miami hospital with a troubled past of its own. The state, too, has its own lousy record of regulation.
The Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration gave the home a health-inspection rating of "much below average," the Miami Herald reported. The state lists Dr. Jack Michel, of South Miami, as the company's manager. He is also the president of Larkin Community Hospital, which has campuses in South Miami and Hialeah. In 2006, the U.S. Justice Department fined Larkin and its owners $15.4 million in the settlement of a civil fraud complaint.
Broward officials said that the nursing home was in compliance with state and federal rules that require an evacuation plan. There was a drill there last year.
One would think that the awful photo of nursing-home residents in Houston, left to languish in waist-high water after Hurricane Harvey, would have made every facility in Florida cringe — and come up with a Plan A, B and C as Irma approached. Word is that Hollywood Hills had only partial generator service, not one to run the building's air conditioning.
The eight nursing-home residents who died were not the only seniors trapped by sketchy planning. In Miami Dade, WLRN reporter Nadege Green found elderly residents in a series of Coconut Grove senior-living apartments who remained trapped, no elevator, no electricity; on Tuesday, about 50 residents of a senior-citizens tower in Miami's Civic Center neighborhood damaged by Irma were being taken to a shelter.
And to think: We almost escaped Hurricane Irma's ire without a senseless loss of life.
Tampa Bay Times of St. Petersburg on "stand your ground" law cases:
So here's a simple question for Florida lawmakers: Who is looking out for the victims? Because we know the state has bent over backward to make sure residents who claim self-defense are not hindered by costly and upsetting delays in the criminal justice system. But what about the families of those who are killed? Now that the "stand your ground" law has created a tricky new layer for prosecutors, who is looking out for the families left broken in the law's wake?
This is a legitimate concern when you consider the Wesley Chapel movie theater case. More than 44 months have passed since an unarmed man was shot and killed by a retired police officer, and there is still no trial in sight. Three years had already passed before the first hearing, where Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Barthle rejected Curtis Reeves' claim for immunity under the "stand your ground" law. Now Reeves' lawyers are contemplating a second "stand your ground" attempt based on retroactively applying recent revisions made to the law that shifted the burden of proof to prosecutors to show defendants do not deserve "stand your ground" protection rather than requiring the defendant's lawyers to demonstrate the defendant deserves it.
It's not a stretch to imagine that Reeves' attorneys are stalling and delaying as long as they possibly can to protect their 75-year-old client from a potential prison sentence. The attorney for Nicole Oulson, the victim's widow, suggested as much recently. The cruel irony is that the original 2005 "stand your ground" law was intended to avoid lengthy delays precisely like this one. Except it was those invoking self-defense claims that legislators were trying to protect.
Lawmakers justified the "stand your ground" law by citing incorrect facts from an obscure case. They pointed to the ordeal of a Panhandle retiree who killed a man in self-defense and then had to hire a lawyer and wait six months before prosecutors ruled he was justified. Except the retiree never did hire a lawyer. And prosecutors cleared him of any charges within three months of the shooting.
In essence, legislators cited a bogus story to justify an unnecessary law to fix a nonexistent problem. And if that wasn't bad enough, they came back this year and changed the law again to put the onus on prosecutors to prove, before a trial even begins, that the "stand your ground" defense is not justified.
The Legislature has tilted the playing field so far in the direction of defendants that justice is no longer swift nor guaranteed. It would be nice if someone in Tallahassee would finally step forward in support of victims and their families.
Orlando Sentinel on Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala creating a panel to evaluate future first-degree murder cases to decide whether capital punishment would be legally appropriate:
After Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala's surprise announcement in March that she wouldn't seek the death penalty against accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd or anyone else as long as she was in office, Gov. Rick Scott reassigned Loyd's prosecution and other pending first-degree murder cases in the 9th Judicial Circuit — ultimately, 29 of them — to 5th Circuit State Attorney Brad King, an advocate of capital punishment. Ayala hired a private lawyer from Washington, D.C., and fired back with a lawsuit challenging Scott's actions, running up a $375,000 tab for taxpayers. Death-penalty opponents from Florida and around the country rallied to her side.
When that suit reached the Florida Supreme Court this summer, the odds seemed to be in the Democratic prosecutor's favor. The high court has a liberal majority, and justices have overturned the Republican governor's policies before.
Instead, by a 5-2 vote, the justices ruled for Scott. In a convincing majority opinion issued last month, Justice Alan Lawson wrote, "Far from being unreasoned or arbitrary ... the reassignments are predicated upon 'good and sufficient reason,' namely Ayala's blanket refusal to pursue the death penalty in any case despite Florida law establishing the death penalty as an appropriate sentence under certain circumstances."
In Florida, legislators write the laws, and prosecutors enforce them.
A unique approach to capital cases
In a news conference following the ruling, Ayala announced she was creating a panel from her staff to evaluate future first-degree murder cases in her circuit to decide whether capital punishment would be legally appropriate. The panel includes six assistant state attorneys, plus the prosecutor assigned to the case. If all seven panel members agree the case calls for the death penalty, her office will pursue it, she said. While it's common practice among state attorneys in Florida to consult with their senior staff in deciding whether to pursue the death penalty, Ayala may be the only one to delegate the final call to a panel.
Ayala said she wouldn't try to get back any of the cases that Scott reassigned, but added that she didn't expect the governor to take away any more now that she has created her death-penalty review panel. A spokesman for the governor was noncommittal. "We will continue to review the details that come out of the state attorney's office, but the governor must be convinced that the death penalty will be sought as outlined in Florida law, when appropriate," John Tupps said.
Reasons to be wary
Although Ayala said she wouldn't interfere with the panel's decision process and would abide by its recommendations, the governor is right to be wary. Unanimity is a high bar. That means just one vote is enough to veto a death-penalty prosecution.
Ayala defended this stringent requirement by noting Florida law stipulates that only a unanimous jury can impose the death penalty. But a trial jury's sentencing decision comes at the end of the judicial process, not the beginning.
A better analogue for the panel is a grand jury, which determines if there is enough evidence — probable cause — to justify indicting an individual accused of a crime. Grand juries, ranging between 15 and 21 members, are convened in Florida to consider indictments in capital cases. A vote for indictment from as few as 12 grand jury members is sufficient. Unanimity is not required at this preliminary stage, though the panel does not weigh in on appropriate punishment.
When she ruled out the death penalty in March, Ayala argued it's too costly, not a deterrent to crime and subjects victims' families to uncertainty and years of legal ordeals. At her news conference, she said she hasn't changed her mind about capital punishment. It's hard to believe that the seven panel members, all of them on her payroll, won't be influenced by this fact as they consider whether to pursue the death penalty — another reason for Scott to be wary. Again, all it takes is one to yield to that pressure.
However, the governor won't be able to judge the integrity of the process the state attorney has established without giving it a chance to work. Scott owes that consideration not just to Ayala, but to the voters in Orange and Osceola counties who elected her.