John Tanner has no second thoughts about seeking the death penalty for triple-murderer Louis Gaskin in 1990, when Tanner was the state attorney in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam counties. It was the right decision then, he said at the time. It’s the right decision still, he said on Tuesday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Gaskin’s death warrant on Tuesday. The state is scheduled to kill Gaskin, who has been on death row for 33 years, at the prison in Starke on April 12, at the usual time for state killings: 6 p.m.
Janet Valentine, who went on to become superintendent of Flagler schools from 2010 to 2014, was one of the 12 jurors who recommended death for Gaskin. She recalls being in the majority of the 8-4 vote. But she has regrets.
“I voted for him to die, but I wouldn’t make that same decision today,” Valentine said today from her home in North Carolina mountains. “I don’t think it’s up to us to decide who’s going to be–” she couldn’t say the word. “At the time, I did believe that, but I don’t.” Not anymore, she said. “There was no doubt he was guilty, and then he’d taken things from their house, like a lamp,” she recalled. (Gaskin had ransacked both homes where he committed murder or attempted murder, stealing items for Christmas presents.)
Valentine wasn’t aware of Gaskin’s scheduled execution until told by a reporter. “I don’t feel good about that. Like I said, I would never make that decision again,” she said. She recalls that the deliberations were not easy.
It’s a different story for Tanner.
He’s known his share of death penalty cases and convicts, from serial killers Ted Bundy to Troy Victorino, the ringleader in a mass murder of six young people in Deltona in 2004.
For 16 years until 2008, when he was defeated by R.J. Larizza, Tanner was a crusading State Attorney. He tried high-profile cases himself. Bundy wasn’t among them: Tanner made headlines first for praying with Bundy some 50 times on Death Row, then for seeking an extension of time before his execution.
But he tried Aileen Wuornos in 1992, the prostitute who shot and killed seven of her clients, he tried Victorino in 2006, and in 1990 he tried Louis Gaskin, the Bunnell resident who murdered Robert and Georgette Sturmfels at their R-Section home in palm Coast, then attempted to murder Mary and Joseph Rector, because he thrilled on the violence, and because he stole Christmas presents from the homes to re-gift.
Tanner was not aware of the death arrant when reached b y phone at his home on John Anderson Highway Tuesday morning, and took a few seconds to re-orient his memory from what was starting as a cool, bright, late-winter day in Flagler County to the wanton violence of the night of Dec. 20, 1989, when Gaskin, 22 at the time, went on his rampage. But Tanner, now 83, soon was back in prosecutor mode as he recollected the case through a transcript of his closing arguments.
“It’s kind of a mixture between anger and sick to the stomach. I don’t mean that I’m nauseated,” Tanner said. “I’m just sad and truthfully disgusted that anyone could do that to another human. He’d have killed four people if he’d had his way just that night. I’ve handled a lot of death penalty cases. This one clearly deserved the death penalty under Florida standards.” Assistant Public Defender Raymond Cass defended Gaskin. Cass died in 2008.
Tanner said when he was state attorney, he always reviewed all cases with his staff attorneys, who weighed in. But the final decision was his, in an office that gives enormous power to state attorneys. He said he’d not had personal interactions with Gaskin, as he’d had with Wuornos and Bundy (the serial murderer and necrophiliac who confessed to some 30 murders in seven states between 1974 and 1978, and who likely killed many more. Bundy was executed in 1989 in the same prison where Gaskin will be killed.)
“I don’t know that it would have done either one of us any good,” Tanner said of any interaction with Gaskin, “because nothing he could have said or done would have caused me to think we’d not obtained the appropriate sentence.” A jury recommended death for Gaskin on an 8-4 vote, and Circuit Judge Kim Hammond imposed the sentence.
It did so after Tanner had described to the jury the brutality of Gaskin’s killings, with disregard for the victims’ suffering, and after he’d told the jury an anecdote about a cat that somehow had taken place the day before.
The story was pure Tanner, who knew what strings to pull long before YouTube kitten videos: “I was driving home yesterday and on the side of the road was a kitten about this big,” he told the jury, indicating a very small-sized animal with his hands, “eyes this big. Blood on its nose. My daughter umped out and picked up the kitten. Its eye was bloody. Thought it had been poked out. Turned out it hadn’t. Appeared that somebody had thrown the kitten out of a window.
“Now, I don’t understand that. You don’t understand that,” Tanner continued, speaking in a courtroom at the old courthouse in Bunnell, the one now used by a Christian school. “We don;t understand that, and that is just a cat.” Barely skipping a beat, he then added: “There is no more precious commodity, there is no more precious gift that we haven than life, and yet I am asking you to recommend to this court–and that recommendation carries great weight, as it should–that you recommend the penalty for Louis Gaskin for the murders of the Sturmfels be death. There is no other just verdict under these circumstances.”
The most effective attorneys know that in the end, it’s not necessarily evidence but emotions–a combination of relatable revulsion and outrage about something that can happen to anyone, anywhere, here turned metaphor in the form of a cat–that can be a juror’s tipping point.
One of the jurors was Janet Valentine, who would go on to become Flagler County school superintendent for several years, and who retired in North Carolina. “I was that’s the second case I had been on in a year, the first one was in Jacksonville,” in federal court, Valentine said. She tried to persuade the attorneys that she’d put in her time that year, but they selected her anyway. She recalled the Gaskin case today, and the difficulty of the deliberations.
To Tanner, there was no question about the validity of the verdict. “Some of the more perverse killers almost glory in describing the horror they’ve inflicted on someone. In this case he rather matter of factly described how he hunted and pursued the Strumfels,” Tanner said, eventually shooting both execution style. “This was cold-blooded and vicious, even though there was no motive, no reason for him to have hatred or wanting revenge or anything like that against people he was killing. They were simply targets of opportunity. It could have been any one of us. The death penalty is a hard thing, I don’t believe it’s a harsh thing. I believe it’s appropriate in many cases, and in this case it certainly was very appropriate.”
Gaskin has exhausted all his legal appeals. But his attorneys are currently attempting to challenge the April 12 execution on novel ground–that one of the drugs that will be used in the lethal injection cocktail may inflict cruel and unusual punishment, because it does not necessarily anesthetize him, as planned. The attorneys in their argument, which will be heard by Circuit Judge Terence Perkins in coming days, cite other recent cases of inmates put to death, who experienced suffering during the final moments.
Later in the day Tuesday, Tanner had an additional thought about the Gaskin verdict, which he left in a voice mail: “In a case like this where the killer has is bragged on it to his friends, freely confessed to the police, and all of the scientific evidence recovered, points unerringly to him as the killer. It should not take 33 years to conclude that type of case on appeal. It’s really hard on the victim’s families to wait. It’s just something that the Supreme Court, probably the legislature, should also deal with: death penalty cases should be expedited within reason.”