Too Dumb to Die

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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.

That's because Florida law doesn't offer a choice. A defendant's mental ability is determined only after guilt. Taxpayers have had to spend thousands of dollars unnecessarily in Moore's case.

In August, Laswell attempted to persuade Circuit Judge Ana I. Gardiner to ignore procedures established by the legislature and determine Moore's mental ability prior to trial. Deciding before the trial would save the state a considerable amount of money, Laswell argued: "This procedure makes no sense fiscally, logically, or otherwise. If the court were to determine whether the defendant was mentally retarded at the outset of trial, a large amount of time and money could be saved."

Gardiner denied Laswell's motion, citing the procedural constraints provided by the legislature and state Supreme Court, but she did send a message from the bench: "The court believes the interest of justice would best be served by permitting the trial court, in appropriate cases such as this one, to make the determination before a trial is conducted, that a particular defendant is mentally retarded and thus not eligible to be sentenced to death."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson