Florida fights against allowing DNA testing for Orange County Death Row inmate

In a case involving a man who has been on Death Row for more than four decades, Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office and the inmate’s lawyers are battling in the Florida Supreme Court about allowing DNA testing of evidence.

The dispute is unusual, at least in part, because Moody’s office is objecting to an agreement that Orlando-area State Attorney Monique Worrell reached last year with lawyers for Death Row inmate Henry Sireci to allow the DNA testing.

Moody’s office appealed to the Supreme Court after an Orange County circuit judge issued an order approving the release of evidence for testing. In a brief filed March 4, Moody’s office contended that the state attorney could not enter the agreement without the support of the attorney general, whose lawyers play a key role in death-penalty appeals.

“The circuit court’s order in this long-final case violates Florida’s comprehensive statutory and rule-based scheme governing postconviction DNA testing, a scheme that balances the state and public’s interest in the finality of lawful convictions with the desire to safeguard the reliability of verdicts,” the brief said. “The state attorney could not unilaterally waive the requirements of that scheme: By statute, the attorney general serves as co-counsel in all capital collateral proceedings, and her express objection vitiated any purported agreement with appellee (Sireci).”

But Sireci’s attorneys filed a 76-page brief Thursday countering the state’s arguments, saying state attorneys have discretion to allow DNA testing in cases where inmates argue they are innocent. Sireci, now 73, was sentenced to death in 1976.

“Appellant (the state) apparently disagrees with the current state attorney’s decision to allow Mr. Sireci … to conduct one final round of DNA testing before the state carries out his execution,” Thursday’s brief said. “But Florida law does not give the attorney general the right to obstruct this well-established exercise of official discretion.”

Sireci was sentenced to death in the 1975 murder of used-car dealer Howard Poteet, who suffered 55 stab wounds, according to court documents. Sireci, who has received legal representation from a national organization, the Innocence Project, has maintained that he did not kill Poteet.

In 2010, Lawson Lamar, then the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, reached an agreement that allowed DNA testing in the case, but the results were inconclusive, the briefs filed this month said.

Worrell agreed in May 2021 to additional DNA testing. A circuit judge authorized the testing, and Moody’s office said it found out about the decision in a newspaper story.

Moody’s office fought the testing, but Circuit Judge Wayne Wooten issued an order in October clearing the way for evidence to be sent to laboratories for analysis. An appendix to Wooten’s order said the evidence included such things as hairs, a bloody denim jacket and towels.

In its March 4 brief, Moody’s office pointed to the importance of concluding Sireci’s case.

“Appellee’s latest efforts to relitigate his conviction deny the state, the victim’s family, and the public finality in this brutal 1975 homicide,” the brief said. “Yet he has not shown — and cannot show — any valid basis for postconviction DNA testing.”

But in the brief Thursday, Sireci’s attorneys cited numerous convictions that have been overturned because of DNA testing.

“Most fundamentally, the interests of crime victims and the state itself are advanced — not thwarted — by rules that do not unduly complicate or burden a capital defendant’s access to DNA evidence,” the brief said. “Every time an innocent person is in prison or on Death Row, the person who actually committed the crime has not been brought to justice. Thus, wrongful convictions harm not just core principles of justice and due process, but the safety of the public.”

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