WEST PALM BEACH —
A 27-year-old Riviera Beach man was spared the death penalty Friday not because a judge said he didn't deserve it but because he knew it wouldn't pass constitutional muster.
"Death is a unique punishment and it's necessary to engage in a review of the totality of the circumstances," Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Charles Burton said.
While agreeing that the shooting death of 35-year-old Wilsy Capre was senseless and tragic, he said it wasn't especially heinous. Instead, he said Antwon Graham should spend the rest of his life behind bars for shooting Capre on Thanksgiving Day 2008 during a botched robbery in Mangonia Park.
"The penalty of death is reserved for the most aggravated and most heinous crimes," Burton said. "The court is obligated to follow Florida law and not impose a sentence he knows to be unconstitutional."
Palm Beach County State Attorney Peter Antonacci pushed for the death penalty even though Graham's attorneys insisted the ultimate punishment didn't fit their client's uncharacteristic crime. Prosecutor Barbara Burns said she warned Capre's mother and father that it was unlikely their son's killer would be sent to Death Row.
While they declined comment after Graham was led from the courtroom in handcuffs, in a statement Burns read to Burton they said they recognized the limitations the judge faced. "He should receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole," they said. Florida abolished parole years ago.
Public Defender James Snowden pointed out that Graham, who was 22 at the time of the murder, had no prior criminal record. He had been a good son, a loving brother and a devoted father to this now 6-year-old daughter. A mental health expert said Graham suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the violence that punctuated his life.
Beginning at age 3, when his aunt was murdered, he has watched friends and family members die, Snowden said. He himself was shot at age 20.
Burton said Graham's clean record, mental illness and other factors had to be weighed against the circumstances surrounding the murder. "The evidence presented showed Capre was shot multiple times in what at best can be described as a robbery gone bad." In similar cases, appeals courts have rejected the death penalty, he said.
Graham would have been the first person sentenced to death since 2001 when Thomas Thibault was put on Death Row for killing three West Palm Beach men in a drug-fueled robbery. His sentence was later overturned and reduced to life by the Florida Supreme Court.
It's been 14 years since a Palm Beach County judge sent someone to Death Row for keeps. In 1998, Carlton Francis got the ultimate punishment for killing his West Palm Beach neighbors — 66 year old twins Bernice Flegel and Clair Brunt. He remains on Death Row along with seven others from Palm Beach County.