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One down, three let go 

If everyone on death row was Timothy McVeigh -- an unrepentant, unapologetic mass murderer -- making a case for abolishing capital punishment may be a bit tougher.

But even as President Bush angles to make the federal government as efficient a killing machine as Texas was under his watch (there's another federal execution planned for Tuesday, June 19), it should be pointed out that McVeigh is the exception, not the rule.

Three recent Florida cases underline that point.

Most notably, there's Gregory Mills, who last month came within 25 hours of being lethally injected by the state. When presented with new evidence -- that Mills' accomplice in a murder-burglary was the triggerman -- the judge who originally overruled a jury and sentenced Mills to death in 1979 changed his mind. The accomplice, Vincent Ashley, had been offered immunity to testify against Mills.

Last week, the Florida Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge and ordered a new sentencing hearing for Mills. Though the district attorney's office could again seek the death penalty, it's unlikely, so a life sentence looks probable.

Also last week, the Florida high court threw out the conviction and death sentence of John Huggins, who had been convicted of the 1997 murder of a College Park woman. Apparently, prosecutors didn't share certain evidence with defense attorneys that might have cleared their man. Oops. In the next few days, the D.A.'s office in that case must decide whether to retry Huggins, who already is serving a life sentence for five bank robberies.

There will be no retrial, however, for Joaquin Martinez. On June 6, a Tampa jury took all of two hours to acquit him of a double-homicide that had sent him to death row in 1997. Problem was, a detective told the first jury he had no doubts about Martinez's guilt based upon a supposed confession he made in secretly recorded conversations to his ex-wife. The appeals courts found that unacceptable.

The second time around, the judge ruled that the tapes were inaudible and threw them out. Without that, prosecutors had absolutely no physical evidence that tied Martinez to the killings, and he was freed. (The prosecutors in the retrial had announced that they were planning to settle for a life sentence if they had won their case.)

Of course, a death-penalty proponent could argue that these cases prove the appeals system works, or that guilty men got lucky. But each of these three cases involve misconduct of some sort, either by the cops or the district attorney's office, that the appeals courts managed to catch before it was too late.

Of the 371 Floridians on death row and the 51 executed since the death penalty was reinstatement in 1976, how sure can anyone be that no one slipped through the cracks?

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