With convicted murderer Louis Gaskin scheduled to be put to death April 12, his attorneys have asked the Florida Supreme Court to stay the execution and reconsider his death sentence.
Among other arguments, Gaskin’s lawyers cite a March 15 FlaglerLive article in which Janet Valentine, one of the 12 jurors at Gaskin’s 1990 trial, said she regrets being part of the 8-4 vote recommending his death. Valentine would go on to be Flagler County’s school superintendent between 2010 and 2014. She has since retired in North Carolina. She was interviewed in mid-March for the article.
Gaskin would be the first person with a capital conviction from Flagler County to be killed by the state since Florida re-instituted the death penalty in 1973. Three other former death row inmates convicted of murders in Flagler County saw their death sentences commuted to life in prison in the last several years.
The attorneys Monday evening filed a motion for a stay and other documents, arguing in part that a jury was not given evidence of Gaskin’s mental illness before recommending that he be sentenced to death in the December 1989 murders of 56-year-old Robert Sturmfels and 55-year-old Georgette Sturmfels in Palm Coast’s R-Section.
The motion follows a frantic series of hearings in Circuit Court in Flagler County between March 16 and March 21 when Gaskin’s lawyer, Tracy Henry, sought numerous public records and argued for an evidentiary hearing on what she considers to have been serious gaps in the evidence presented to the jury in 1990. Circuit Judge Terence Perkins denied the motions for public records and an evidentiary hearing.
A 57-page brief said the jury did not receive “profound and important mitigating evidence” about Gaskin’s mental illness and an abusive childhood. It said such evidence would have outweighed what are known as “aggravating” factors and spared Gaskin from the death penalty. The jury voted 8-4 to recommend the death penalty to then Circuit Judge Kim Hammond.
“Although the jury heard none of the compelling mitigation that was available at the time of trial, four jurors still understood the practically nonexistent mitigation case presented at trial well enough to recommend a life sentence,” the motion states. “This is far from a constitutionally valid death verdict. With a full presentation of mitigation by competent counsel, it is highly unlikely that the State would have obtained a majority recommendation from the jury, let alone a 12-0 decision from a properly instructed jury. In fact, one of the jurors who voted for death at Mr. Gaskin’s trial, has come forward saying that she regrets her decision. On March 15, after learning of the death warrant, she told a reporter that she would not make the same decision today.”
The motion then quotes Valentine: “I would never make that decision again.”
“Four jurors voted for life despite the fact that Mr. Gaskin’s trial counsel failed him at every turn, especially in the penalty (sentencing) phase where only two lay witnesses and no expert witnesses were presented,” the brief said. “Those four jurors knew next to nothing about Mr. Gaskin. They knew nothing about the abuse and abandonment he suffered as a child; nothing about him being raised in squalor by his illiterate great-grandparents who forced him to eat off the floor and beat him mercilessly; nothing about his teenage mother who disappeared from his life for years at a time; nothing about the father he never knew. The jurors heard nothing about Mr. Gaskin being bullied in school, that he continued to suck his thumb well into his teen years, or that he would go off by himself and rock back and forth.”
The state is expected to file response briefs this week. The responses are expected to echo arguments made before Perkins. Lawyers for the state last week argued that opening the case to further evidence could be a bad deal for Gaskin, since he also confessed to a third murder (of Charles Martin in 1986), not introduced at trial, and had other issues with deviancy.
DeSantis on March 13 signed a death warrant for Gaskin. Gaskin, now 56, also received a life sentence after being convicted of attempted murder for shooting a man during a burglary at another home the same night, according to court documents.
In addition to seeking a stay, Gaskin’s attorneys requested that the Supreme Court order an evidentiary hearing or vacate the death sentence. They also filed what is known as a petition for writ of habeas corpus based on an allegation that an aggravating factor in the case was unconstitutional.
Gaskin would be the second Florida inmate executed in less than two months. The state on Feb. 23 put to death Donald David Dillbeck, who murdered a woman in 1990 during a carjacking in a Tallahassee mall parking lot. Dillbeck, 59, was the 100th inmate executed in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Before Dillbeck’s execution, the state had not carried out a death sentence since Gary Ray Bowles was put to death by lethal injection in August 2019 for a 1994 murder in Jacksonville.
–FlaglerLive and The News Service of Florida
Brief – Initial-Merit-gaskin