Too Dumb to Die

Kevin Moore's case raises questions about executing the mentally disabled

After Oscarson informed the officers that the panhandler was in fact a murder suspect, Fort Lauderdale police chased him down and took him into custody. Rick Libman, a homicide detective with the Broward Sheriff's Office, interrogated the suspect.

"Did you do some work for [Yvonne Moss] a while back?" Libman asked him.

"Yes."

"What kind of work?"

"Yard work," Moore answered.

"All right, and did she pay you for it?"

"No."

"How much money does she owe you?"

"Thirty dollars."

"OK, and did you ever try and collect that money?"

"Yes."

"And what happened with that?"

"I didn't get it..."

"Tell me what happened from the beginning," Libman continued.

"I walked in," Moore answered. "I'm right there, and I killed her."

"OK, well, how did you get in the house?"

"The door was open."

"Was it wide open or just unlocked?"

"It was just open."

"OK, and when you go in, where do you first go?

"To her room..."

"Tell what you did first when you got in there," Libman instructed.

"I just raped her... I played with her private with my dick, and I fucked her, and then I raped her."

"You did fuck her?" Libman asked.

"And then I killed her..."

"How did you kill her?"

"Cut her throat..."

"Why did you cut her throat?"

"I did it because I was scared," Moore said.

"What were you scared of?"

"She might have woke up and told."

"And what happens if she woke up and told?" Libman asked.

"I would have been in jail."

Libman turned Moore's confession over to the Broward State Attorney's Office, which on August 23, 2002, filed felony charges for first-degree murder, armed sexual battery, abuse of the elderly, and armed burglary. At the same time, Assistant State Attorney Peter Holden informed the court of his intent to seek the death penalty. That decision would spark a yearlong battle between the State Attorney's Office and the Broward Public Defender's Office -- a legal clash that highlighted possible problems in Florida law.


Bill Laswell is a charming man who stands less than six feet tall. The only thing quicker than his wit is his proclivity for telling stories. A 64-year-old self-effacing lawyer with oversized eyeglasses, Laswell has a dark-brown head of hair resting above a grandfatherly beard that grays gradually as it moves above his prominent cheekbones. His desk, nestled in the rear of an office that houses lawyers who handle juvenile and capital cases, is covered with neatly organized stacks of documents.

The veteran assistant public defender walks to the left side of his desk and pulls out a poster-sized color picture. In the photograph, a pudgy middle-aged woman sits at a kitchen table, her torso resting on its edge. Blood covers the white tabletop; the body stops at the neck. Then he pulls out another large snapshot. It shows a woman's head, the flesh yellowed and drooping off the skull. "The head was outside," Laswell says gruffly. "You can see how the rate of decomposition differs in air conditioning."

In his three decades in the Broward Public Defender's Office, Laswell has had the unenviable position of defending the indefensible: brutal murderers who prey on innocent victims. "I represent truly unpopular folks who did brutally unpopular things," he says.

Laswell, whose clients have included serial killers Lucious Boyd and Eddie Lee Mosley, has for most of his career dueled prosecutors representing one of the most merciless states in the nation. According to a Columbia University study of capital cases from 1972 to 1995, Florida had the most death convictions in the nation, with 889. What's more, with 55 death verdicts in that period, Broward was the 14th most likely county in the nation to seek the death penalty. In Florida, only three counties had more death convictions than Broward: Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, and Duval. More troubling, 88 percent of Broward's 55 verdicts were later overturned, a rate much higher than the national average.

And it's expensive. According to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, it costs the state $3.2 million to convict and execute a single man, six times more than it would cost to incarcerate him for life.

That might explain why much of Florida's death penalty is political sound and fury. Despite hundreds of death convictions, the state has executed just 57 people, including four suspected of mental illness or retardation since John Earl Bush was electrocuted in 1996 for the murder of Francis Slater, heir to the Evinrude outboard motor fortune. (Bush was the last mentally challenged defendant to be executed.) Still, prosecutors in Broward and elsewhere continue to seek the state's highest level of punishment.

The Broward State Attorney's Office wanted such retribution in the case of Kevin Moore. On an early December afternoon, Laswell was particularly troubled by the case. Since Moore's indictment in summer 2002, he and his co-counsel, Dorothy Ferraro, have had a hard time establishing circumstances that could sway a jury to save him from the death penalty. It took Laswell and Ferraro, for instance, three subpoenas to force Moore's grandmother and uncle to provide depositions about the alleged killer's childhood.

Yet it's not Moore's uncooperative family that bothers him most. It's that public resources, time, and money even need to be spent crafting a full murder defense. Moore's first IQ test, at age 10, showed him to be mentally disabled. A second one, paid for by the state after Moore had allegedly murdered Moss, pegged his IQ at 54. Based on this evidence, Moore cannot be executed, according to Florida law and the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the Broward State Attorney's Office still treated Moore's prosecution as a capital case.

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