By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - A sharply divided Florida Supreme Court told public defenders Thursday they may not withdraw from the appeal of a death row inmate who strangled a cellmate in hopes of being executed.
The Charlotte County public defender’s office on Florida's west coast had sought to end representation of James Robertson, who the high court’s ruling said “wishes to argue in favor of the death sentence.”
Robertson, 51, was sentenced to die for the 2008 murder of Frank Hart, his cellmate in Charlotte County. Circuit Judge Christine Greider, who imposed the sentence, said Robertson was weary of incarceration after having spent nearly 30 years in jails and prisons, and had killed Hart hoping for a death sentence.
A 4-3 majority of the high court told the public defenders to stay on the case, not for Robertson’s sake, but to maintain the legal process for capital cases in Florida.
“The only way for this court to ensure that a death sentence is not arbitrarily or capriciously imposed is to provide meaningful appellate review of each death sentence,” said the unsigned ruling. It noted that the Florida Constitution requires the Supreme Court to review all death cases, not just those that are contested by defendants.
In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Pariente wrote that “the defendant is not the ‘captain of the ship’ regarding which issues to raise in an appeal.”
Justice Charles Canady dissented, saying the court “unjustifiably infringes on Mr. Robertson’s right to make the fundamental decision of whether to pursue the appeal ... as well as his right to a lawyer who will follow the ethical imperative to abide by Mr. Robertson’s decision.”
Canady said the courts should seek to determine "whether Mr. Robertson has made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his right of appeal."
Public Defender Rex Dimmig in Bartow said Robertson sought to waive presentation of any mitigating evidence at trial and told assistant Public Defender Steven Bolotin, who handled the case, that he did not want to appeal the sentence.
“That created an ethical conflict for us, in that an attorney has an obligation to represent his client,” said Dimmig.
(Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh)