There will be no further court hearings ahead of the April 12 state killing of Louis Gaskin, who is on death row for two murders in Palm Coast and has confessed to a third.
After denying the defense’s request for numerous public records from half a dozen agencies on Friday, Circuit Judge Terence Perkins this morning in Bunnell denied the defense’s motion for an evidentiary hearing on Tuesday, ending Gaskin’s last possible effort to prevent his killing. The state Supreme Court and a last-minute commutation by the governor are the only remaining possibilities, but they are beyond the remote.
Tracy Henry, Gaskin’s defense lawyer, last week had sought records to challenge the claim that the lethal injection cocktail is a humane form of execution. Her motions included evidence about botched executions that resulted in the suffering or torture of individuals in their last moments of life.
Henry pressed today for a Tuesday hearing to argue, among other matters, that Gaskin’s death sentence “violates evolving standards of decency, is arbitrary, capricious and excessive” in violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Certain mental health records were not presented to the jury at his trial and could have swayed enough jurors to result in a life-in-prison verdict rather than a recommendation for death.
Henry would have also argued that the 8-4 jury that recommended death was far from unanimous, that at least one juror, as reported by FlaglerLive last week, has since changed her mind, and that Gaskin’s case should have been reviewed on the non-unanimous basis alone, as three other cases from Flagler were. All three were commuted to life in prison. (See: “Janet Valentine, a Juror and Future Superintendent, Regrets Voting for Gaskin’s Death. Prosecutor Does Not.”)
Patrick Bobeck, a lawyer with the Attorney general’s office, objected, saying no new evidence would be presented, and that all arguments the defense was presenting had already been ruled on, or addressed as settled. Perkins agreed. His written ruling is expected later today. It will be conveyed to the Supreme Court, along with all transcripts and rulings from a spate of motions generated since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Gaskin’s death warrant a week ago.
Still, the arguments the defense presented today highlight the arbitrariness and, to some extent, the sophistries of law, rather than consistent rationales, that undergird Florida’s death penalty.
When he was 22, in December 1989, Gaskin murdered 56-year-old Robert Sturmfels and 55-year-old Georgette Sturmfels at their R-Section house, then went to another R-Section house where he shot and wounded a man. He confessed to police and detailed his shooting spree in a recorded interview, and was later convicted and sentenced to die by then-Circuit Judge Kim Hammond.
Henry today argued that Gaskin’s mental health record, while not a bar to execution, was not presented to the jury. He may have had a diagnosis of schizophrenia. If the jury had heard the additional evience, “there’s a substantial likelihood that more than four jurors would have voted for life or that there would have been a tie, which would have resulted in a life verdict,” Henry said.
“How do I know that?” Perkins asked. “How do I know that it would have made any difference of any kind?”
“Well, we don’t, your honor. That’s not something that we know or can know,” Henry said. “We allege that there would be a substantial likelihood that it would have changed and we do have the evidence of–well, not the evidence–but Ms. Janet Valentine, who was one of the votes, or jurors who voted for death, actually spoke to a reporter and said that she would not have done that now and that she regrets that decision.” Had she or others heard some of the mental illness factors, “it’s substantially likely that more voters, more jurors would have voted for life.”
Another of Henry’s claims is that since Gaskin’s death sentence was not based on a unanimous recommendation–it was an 8-4 vote–it should have been eligible for review and very likely a commutation, but for a court decision that cut off such reviews with a calendar date.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries, not judges, decide for or against death sentences. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently ruled that all convictions based on non-unanimous jury recommendations should be reviewed. From that date on, all Florida death sentences were reviewed, and three in Flagler County alone were commuted from death to life sentences. But Gaskin had been convicted in 1990, pre-dating both court decisions. So his case was not eligible for review.
“Only a date on a calendar kept his case from being reviewed as hundreds of cases were,” Henry said, describing it as a “manifest injustice.”
“The point to the death penalty and whether or not someone should be executed should be based solely on the fact whether the mitigators outweigh the aggravators, not what day they were convicted,” Henry said. “To make a decision of whether someone can live or die based on a date on the calendar just highlights exactly how arbitrary and capricious this process is.”
Henry likely knew even before the spate of hearings began last week that her efforts were flails in the dark, in a state where–against national and international trends–the death penalty is getting reasserted more forcefully and less rigorously. The judge’s questions reflected Henry’s isolation from the start of this morning’s hearing, well before he ruled.
The state was dismissive of Henry’s claims. “The mitigation that could have been presented would have opened the door to a lot of bad information, including a prior murder, a prior attempted murder, sexual deviancy, just a lot of information that jurors would have seen as aggravating,” Bobeck said. “It was a reasonable strategy to not present it and open the door.”
As for the calendar issue, controlling law now is a much more recent decision by the Florida Supreme Court in 2020 declaring that unanimous juries are no longer necessary in death penalty cases, Bobeck said. The law requiring unanimous findings hasn’t changed, but the Legislature is advancing a bill that would ratify that decision this spring, only six years after it passed a law requiring unanimous verdicts. (See: “Lawmakers Move Closer to Scrapping Unanimous Jury Requirement for Death Penalty Recommendations.”)
Bobeck asked that all claims be summarily denied. “There’s nothing new in this motion, so any testimony that will be presented would be stuff this court has already heard before, and ruled on,” he said.
Henry tried one last time. “It is a manifest injustice that Mr. Gaskin is being executed at this point, 30 years later,” she said, “and that there are people on death row right now–and I’m not trying to single anyone out and I’m certainly not suggesting that other death warrants be signed or that someone be substituted in his place–but there are people there who have 12-0’s, and 11-1’s, and he was an 8-4, and another one of those jurors said that she would change her vote now.”
“I find your arguments to be both candid and noble, and I deeply appreciate that,” Perkins had told Henry when she had concluded her arguments before a rebuttal. But when Bobeck was done, he did not hesitate or qualify his judgment, as he sometimes does when he feels either constrained by a law he may find too doctrinal or aggrieved by the grayness of a case. His judgment was dryly direct.
“I do not find the need for further evidentiary hearing,” Perkins said. “These are simply legal arguments on successive motions, and we’ll deal with those in our order.” Regarding the timing of the Gaskin’s conviction, and what made it ineligible for review the way other cases had been, “the case law on that is pretty clear,” he said. Perkins left the door open for some reconsideration of the defense’s claims about the jury not hearing of Gaskin’s mental health issues, and of the 8-4 recommendation. He said he wanted to “go back and look at something on the record with claims one and two,” but did not specify what.
“Obviously no notice of appeal is necessary with regard to the order that the court makes,” Perkins said at the end of this morning’s 40-minute hearing, since the order is being submitted to the Supreme Court for review. “The Supreme Court will take it up in accordance with their scheduling order.” In fact, henry noted, an appeal will be formally filed by Thursday.
Only Perkins was in the courtroom. All attorneys attended by zoom. Unlike last week, when Gaskin also appeared by zoom from the state prison in Raiford, he was not present this morning.
There is no killing involved here. A murderer is being executed as the law demands.
Exactly could not agree more. There is no killing, he is being executed as the law states. Honestly he killed people, and admitted it, case closed it does not matter what your mental state is. You had enough mental capabilities to plan a murder. You need to pay for the crimes you commit, not hope the justice system cuts you a break. They need to bring back old sparky. It’s ridiculous to hear about the lawyer fighting for a more humane way of execution for this murderer. Are you kidding me. Is anyone even aware of just how many violent schizophrenics are currently walking freely out on the streets right now with long arrest records. Would anyone really want to cut them a break if they have a mental illness and killed someone you loved. No they would want 5 minutes alone in a room with them. There is not a country in this world that can manage that issue. The only real solution here is to build more jails, longer jail sentences. Lets keep law abiding citizens safe. PERIOD!
Four jurors did not endorse the death penalty. I wonder why?
Concerned Citizen says
This guy has certainly had more chances than he gave his victims.
Ask the legal representation fighting against April 12th, what date & time would be good for them for the lethal injection ?
Mary Jo McKay says
Lewis definitely committed horrific crimes for which he should spend the rest of his life in a prison where he can get the mental health care he so desperately needs. As a childhood neighbor, I’m certain he suffered from mental health issues. This is another example how broken our mental health care system is so severely broken. Being raised by his grandparents with limited means, I’m sure he didn’t receive mental health care as a child and left untreated it worsened to the point of taking lives. My heart aches for the families who loss their loved ones.
“Violates evolving standards of decency, is arbitrary, capricious and excessive.” Tell that to the victim’s family Tracy Henry.