Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. (Florida)  Case Chart

Allegation

On March 15, 1998, the State of Florida, with acquiescence by the federal government, executed Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. in the electric chair. The state and federal governments failed to ensure Darden’s right to a free and fair trial. The unfair and racially discriminatory trial resulted in Darden’s execution.

Crime

On the evening of September 8, 1973, in the course of a robbery at Carl’s Furniture Store in Lakeland, Florida, James Carl Turman was shot and killed and his 16-year-old neighbor was wounded. The police estimated the time of the murder to be between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m. Darden was arrested for a traffic violation but then subsequently charged with, tried, and convicted of Turman’s murder, assault, and armed robbery.

Salient Issues

Trial

Darden, an African American, was convicted by an all-white jury of killing a white man. The state intentionally excluded all African-American persons from the jury. Intentional exclusion of jurors solely on the basis of race has since been found to be unconstitutional (Batson v. Kentucky, 1986). Jury selection in Darden’s case was improper, according to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in his dissenting opinion.

Three witnesses – the victim’s wife, the neighbor who was wounded in the shooting, and another neighbor – provided conflicting descriptions of the suspect, but all later identified Darden. Initially, the victim’s wife had difficulty describing the suspect. She was never asked to identify Darden in a line-up. She identified him in court, where he was the only African-American male present. The neighbor injured in the shooting initially described the shooter as a man larger than Darden. Discrepancies in eyewitness accounts included whether Darden had a mustache and whether he was wearing a white or maroon shirt. Darden’s lawyer failed to raise these discrepancies at trial.

The time frame was key to securing Darden’s conviction. Christine Bass had stated that Darden was in front of her house with a broken down car from 4 to 5:30 p.m. She came to court daily during the trial to testify and was never called. Other witnesses, Brazen and Stone, had noted the time when they had contact with Darden. Stone, in particular, saw police cars in front of the furniture store at about 6 p.m. Darden, himself, called the sheriff’s office to report an accident he had after his car was fixed. This was at 6:32 p.m., according to the sheriff’s report. Yet the state was able to get a conviction. Years later, the victim’s minister, who had been called to the crime scene at 5:30 p.m. and had arrived at 5:55 p.m., realized that this information was significant to the case. Both he and Christine Bass gave affidavits that would have strengthened Darden’s alibi.

The prosecutor used racist remarks and inflammatory statements to prejudice the jury. During trial, he repeatedly expressed a wish "that I could see [Darden] sitting here with no face, blown away by a shotgun." In addition to evidence of Darden’s innocence and evidence of ineffective counsel, the prosecution’s racist and inflammatory statements should have been grounds for a re-examination of this case.

Appeals

On its way through state and federal appeals, Darden’s case was found sufficiently egregious to warrant review on numerous grounds. Darden was granted a stay of execution to allow the court time to consider his appeal. In all he received seven death warrants and six stays. He came within hours of death several times. In 1984, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals voted 7-5 to grant habeas relief to Darden. This decision, however, was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case for further consideration. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit denied relief. In 1986, Florida Governor Bob Martinez refused to meet with the witnesses whose statements corroborated Darden’s alibi. He kept signing the death warrants as Darden lost in the courts.

Conclusion

Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. was executed despite compelling evidence of his innocence. The state failed to provide Darden with competent legal counsel. Darden’s state appointed lawyers did not identify or call important witnesses who had evidence of Darden’s innocence. The state intentionally excluded all African-American persons from the jury – a practice later found to be an unconstitutional form of racial discrimination. While appeals courts did find evidence of prosecutorial misconduct sufficiently egregious to warrant further review and even to grant habeas relief, the decision of the trial court, in the end, was upheld.

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