Two years after the double murder of an elderly couple in Palm Coast’s B-Section, and after a jury found him guilty and recommended death, David Snelgrove made a plea to the court through his attorney: he was asking for a life sentence without parole.
“Life sentences end all legal proceedings,” Larry Henderson, who had represented him at trial, wrote in a motion. “There will be no appeals–no costly post-conviction proceedings–no years of uncertainty in the outcome for the community or the family of the victims. The matter ends with a known result. There is no uncertainty.”
The motion was denied. And for the past 18 years, it’s been all appeals, costly post-conviction proceedings, and years of uncertainty.
The uncertainty continued this morning as Snelgrove returned to the Flagler County courthouse for his third sentencing-phase trial in those 18 years, one scheduled to last all week before Circuit Judge Kathryn Weston. Thinner than he’s been in previous appearances, beardless (he shaved it off just before today’s trial), his white hair barely visible, Snelgrove put on a suit and tie for the first time in at least two decades. He was out of practice: Michael Nielsen, his attorney, helped him out like a parent readying his son for the first day of school. Voluble in pre-trial appearances (Snelgrove likes to share stories with his attorneys or with bailiffs), he was subdued today, but not gloomy: Snelgrove usually wears a benign, vacant expression that betrays little emotion.
A defendant may not be prosecuted for the same offense twice. But he or she may be sentenced repeatedly–an aberration of law that Michael Nielsen, Snelgrove’s attorney, underscored in an objection before today’s proceedings began. Nielsen mentioned the two previous sentencing hearings Snelgrove went through in the past. “Now they get a third shot at it. It doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t seem fair,” Nielsen said, referring to the prosecution. “We are proceeding under protest.”
The judge overruled the objection.
At least a full day–today–was for jury selection. The challenge for the attorneys on both sides was to find 12 jurors and two alternates, out of a jury pool of 60, willing to recommend the death penalty. Jury selection is a challenge for lawyers whatever the crime: many individuals declare themselves incapable to pass judgment, to handle certain cases–violent or sex crimes especially. Neither side likes overzealous jurors, overly opinionated jurors, jurors with personally traumatic experiences. In death penalty cases, the challenge is amplified because many individuals enter the courtroom with strong feelings one way or the other–either entirely opposed to the death penalty, no matter the circumstances, or enthusiastically for it.
“Religiously, I do have a concern with that, unfortunately,” one potential juror said early on in the proceedings.
“I would never put anyone to death, I don’t believe it’s my right to make that decision,” another said, even before the lawyers began asking direct questions about capital punishment.
More than a half dozen jurors were excused by midday, before the harder questions began. When they did, with Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton asking them, jurors quite clearly took sides, with many declaring themselves unable or unwilling to recommend death whatever the circumstances and many saying they could, most (but not all) in ways that reflect the anguish and difficulty of the question, the more so in a county that has seen a death penalty recommended only once in the last 12 years–(Cornelius Baker was found guilty of murder in 2008, sentenced to death in 2009, but he is returning to court in Flagler for another penalty-phase trial next month, for much the same constitutional reasons as Snelgrove has.)
As the prosecutor systematically asked every one of the remaining 50-some jurors in the courtroom what their beliefs were about the death penalty, and whether they could or would recommend it, the answers formed a vivid mosaic of sharp opinions and convictions that ranged across a broad spectrum.
“I’ve never been in a position where I have to think about it,” a woman said, “now that I’m thinking about it, it’s really weighing heavy on me.” She described the situation “unnerving” without necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with capital punishment itself. But when Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Dunton asked her whether she could hear the case and impose death based on the facts, she said yes, after some hesitation. “I don’t know if there’s a right answer to that,” she then said, but was willing to listen to the facts.
“When I walked in the door, I don’t believe I was for the death penalty,” another juror said. “I don’t know if I could do that.” She said there would be no circumstances where she’d impose death. “I’d have a hard time living with my decision. I guess I could weigh the circumstances, but I don’t know how far I could go with it.”
There were those who spoke more briefly, and in favor, of the death penalty, saying that if the evidence showed it was warranted, they could recommend it. A practicing attorney said likewise, his brief words of certainty contrasting with those who’d speak at length about their discomforts and difficulties with the question.
One woman spoke from the sort of middle ground that appeals to attorneys on both sides: she was not thrilled about the death penalty, but depending on the facts, she could see herself recommending death.
“It wouldn’t be easy, but I think I can do it,” another man said. Philosophically, he said he was for the death penalty. “The punishment fits the crime,” he said, making a reference to watching “Law and Order,” the television drama.
Most said they’d never been put in that situation before and were having to think hard about it for the first time. “When it’s put right on you, it’s hard to decide,” a woman said, making a distinction between what’s shown on television and what reality demands. She spoke about the stress that “putting a cat down” placed on her for days, as Snelgrove looked on, paying attention to every juror’s response.
“When you go to war–I was in the military–you do have to kill,” a man said, but he also cited one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” So he was categorical. “I don’t think I can do it, I don’t think I can send somebody to their death, even though they did a hideous crime. I don’t think it’s my decision,” he said. He called it a form of revenge. “No, I would not consider it.”
“I don’t think you should take it lightly,” but she would consider imposing death, a woman said, echoing a recurring approach for those in the sort of middle that the attorneys are seeking: . It’s not easy, it’s not desirable, but it’s an option.
“What does it serve? It serves no purpose,” one woman said of the death penalty, saying life in prison is “the worst punishment.” A man right next to her said he didn’t believe in an eye for an eye.
A man who said he’d contended with the question for 70 years put it simply: “Absolutely not.” A much younger man who didn’t preface his statement said he was opposed regardless. Another who said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the death penalty on its face said he personally could not impose it.
“It’s not really what I think, it’s what the law says and what the judge instructs” and what evidence is presented by the lawyers, a juror said. “Hopefully they can make it clear to us what the result should be.” He added: “I could be a thousand percent against the death penalty but if the law says that’s what supports it, that’s the way I would go. I believe in the law.” Dunton pressed him on his personal opinion. “My opinion is to have no opinion on it,” at least publicly, he said. She pressed him again about his personal opinion. He would not give it. Dunton was at the edge of losing patience, and tried different approaches, unsuccessfully.
But all other jurors answered more directly. Still, with so many potential jurors clearly opposed to the death penalty, and the attorneys’ weeding for other reasons not yet done, it was unlikely that the 12 would be seated by the end of Monday. Nielsen said he would not be prepared to conclude his analysis by tonight anyway, and the judge, during a mid-afternoon break, allowed that jury selection would most likely continue Tuesday.
Snelgrove sat between his two defense attorneys, Nielsen and Jeff Stone, facing the jury pool the whole time, as defendants do. He left the assiduous note-taking to Nielsen, and at times, in mid-afternoon, seemed to struggle to keep his eyes open.
The night of June 24, 2000, Snelgrove, 28 years old at the time, broke into the home of his neighbors Glyn and Vivian Fowler at 82 Bannbury Lane in Palm Coast to burglarize a place he knew well: the Fowlers had been kind to him, taken care of him, given him money. Weeks earlier he’d been booted out of a Salvation Army drug treatment program. He was again indulging his crack addiction. He was looking for cash and jewelry in his neighbors’ house.
He was rummaging through the Fowlers’ dresser in their bedroom when Glyn woke up and caught him in the act. Snelgrove bludgeoned him and his wife and stabbed them both to death.
Glyn was 84. Vivian was 79. They’d moved to Palm Coast 20 years earlier, when it was a mere village, retiring from New Jersey.
“My parents were wonderful,” Randy Fowler, the couple’s son, said in court in 2015, when Snelgrove was seeking to overturn the sentence on a claim of ineffective representation. (His motion was denied.) “They were such good people they offered him work in our backyard before he did this. They were wonderful people. Church-going. They were supposed to be in church, and that’s how their bodies were discovered. They didn’t show up for church. They were ushers that day, and instead of going to church, they were murdered.”
Snelgrove lived nearby on Bayside Drive with his aunt Alice Snelgrove. Deputies would soon discover the knife used in the attack, discarded in the woods near the house. Snelgrove’s guilt was never in question. He’d walked into the Fowlers’ home barefoot, after walking on glass and cutting himself. His blood was in the house. The Fowlers’ blood was in his. He was found guilty and twice sentenced to death, though the juries recommending death were split both times: 7-5 and 8-4.
In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida’s death-penalty phase proceedings unconstitutional: no person could be sentenced to death without a unanimous jury recommendation, the court ruled. The following year the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new sentencing trial for Snelgrove, what would be his third. A sentencing trial has many similarities with a regular trial, entailing the impaneling of a 12-member jury and days of testimony before the jury returns a verdict, in this case in the form of a recommendation: either death or life in prison.
Snelgrove’s defense attorneys had argued that he’d never intended to kill the Fowlers, that he was on crack, was disoriented, and acted out of confusion and fright. Those arguments are expected to be part of the case the defense will present this week, along with evidence of Snelgrove’s mental disability. His attorneys say he was born with brain damage, with an IQ lower than 78 (his mother drank heavily when she was pregnant with him), that he was in special education classes and didn’t complete 10th grade. He was a hard worker, at menial jobs.
“There are some people that are just bad people,” Henderson, one of Snelgrove’s attorneys, wrote in 2002. “They constantly fight. They are dishonest. They are not loyal. They do not work. They are violent. They are dangerous. They are deceitful. They are obnoxious. They are bullies. Credible evidence was presented showing that none of these descriptions apply to David Snelgrove, and that they have not applied to him for 28 years.”
Until, that is, he took the lives of Glyn and Vivian Fowler.