Florida Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence for Gruesome Murders

January 25, 2022 Criminal Defense, Violent Crimes

A Tragic Story

On January 13, the Florida Supreme Court decided to overturn the conviction and death sentence of Peter Avsenew. In 2017, Avsenew was convicted of two counts of murder for the deaths of married couple Stephen Adams and Kevin Powell in their home in Wilton Manners, Florida, on December 23, 2010. The manner in which the victims had been murdered was particularly gruesome, with the judge calling the murders “cold, calculated and premeditated.” Avsenew had been allegedly staying with the couple at the time of the crime and confided in his mother, Jeanne Avsenew, that “he had done something and needed to get away for six months and everything would later be all right.” After she discovered through an internet search that he was a person of interest in the murders, she contacted the police to turn her son in to the authorities. 

Even more disturbing was the letter Avsenew sent Broward County Judge Ilona Holmes while he was awaiting sentencing. In the letter, he stated he believed it was his duty “as a white man to cull the weak and timid from existence.” He continued, stating that he “will always stand up for what [he] believe[s] in and eradicate anything in [his] way. Homosexuals are a disgrace to mankind and must be put down. These weren’t the first and won’t be the last.”  He continued to express similar hateful rhetoric at his hearing in 2018.

Against advice from Judge Holmes, he opted to represent himself at trial after firing his public defender. The jury unanimously sentenced Avsenew to death, a punishment Judge Holmes upheld, noting in her sentencing order that the murders were “especially heinous, atrocious or cruel.” In connection with the murders, he was also convicted of two counts each of armed robbery, grand theft auto, credit card fraud, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Avsenew showed his clear lack of remorse after his sentencing when he gave the grieving families of the victims’ the middle finger in open court.  He has remained on death row in Raiford, Florida.

Reversed – But Why?

The question now arises, how could such a cruel and callous individual that has threatened to commit more violence have his conviction and sentence overturned? Florida’s highest court reversed on the grounds that the State incorrectly used pre-recorded remote testimony from a witness. Specifically, the Court took issue with the fact that:

“During Defendant’s trial, Defendant’s mother, Jeanne Avsenew, testified regarding multiple incriminating statements made and actions taken by Defendant shortly after the murders. At issue was whether the perpetuated testimony of Jeanne, which was given despite her inability to see Defendant during her testimony, violated Fla. R. Crim P. 3.190(i)(3), which requires that the defendant be in the witness’s presence during testimony.”

Witnesses are permitted to use video testimony if they are unable to attend trial, but because Jeanne’s testimony was recorded on video and played at Peter’s trial without her being in his presence at the time, the Court ruled there was a clear violation of Rule 3.190(i)(3) and that the error was not harmless. As a result, the case was reversed and remanded to the circuit court for a new trial. In the Supreme Court’s Opinion, seeming to reference the gravity of Avsenew’s crime, they stated they do not “take lightly the impact of today’s decision. However, the introduction of Ms. Avsenew’s testimony constituted harmful error, and we are bound to rule in a manner that remedies such error.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many court proceedings to take place over video conferencing, we have to wonder if defense attorneys and prosecutors will be faced with procedural rules they may not be used to employing, resulting in procedural issues that give rise to reversals that, although are procedurally correct, leave us shaking our heads in bewilderment.

This article was written by Sarah Kamide

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