Your editorial of Jan. 24. "Justice Clearly Cheated," assumes Joseph Spaziano is guilty of murder. Take that assumption away, and your headline may have read, "Injustice Barely Cheated."
Spaziano was convicted 20 years ago of killing a woman whose body was found in a dump. The state's case was dependent upon Tony DiLisio, a key witness who testified that Spaziano showed him the body. Now DiLisio has recanted that testimony, and a new trial has been ordered for Spaziano.
One of the nation's respected newspapers, The Miami Herald, believed DiLisio's recantation, and so did one of our most law-and-order judges, O.H. Eaton Jr. Judge Eaton is hard-sell in criminal matters, and if he, along with The Miami Herald, believe DiLisio now, I am confident so would most people.
However, for death-penalty advocates, and I am one, we can be thankful for these 20 years. If the state had executed Spaziano 15 years ago, as the editorial suggests, and then DiLisio developed the need to purge his conscience, Spaziano would now be a martyr, and death-penalty foes would be handed a rallying cry to overthrow the death penalty for all times.
Once it is proven without doubt the wrong man was executed, the vocal minority will gain strength in numbers, and under a democracy, the Legislature will respond to what might then become the majority.
Regarding the often-cited argument of the cost in maintaining a death-row inmate, certainly a civilized society does not favor capital punishment because it is cheaper. In fact, economic husbandry would be served by killing all law violators. Besides, states without the death penalty house convicted murderers, not merely for 20 years but for life.
Regarding your contention that a new trial would be futile because the evidence is gone. the fact remains that, without DiLisio's testimony, there could have been no conviction in the first place. DiLisio's original testimony was hypnotically refreshed testimony, which our Supreme Court has since ruled inadmissible, and justifiably so, based on the DiLisio experience. My guess is that the long delay was influenced by the reluctance to execute someone on the strength of hypnotically refreshed testimony, now recognized as unreliable.
Nevertheless, the fact that witnesses in the original trial are now dead is no deterrent to a new trial. Under the Rules of Evidence, their testimony can be read to a new jury with more drama and effect than the original witnesses presented. This is because the state can produce nice-appearing people with good voices to read the direct and cross examination of the original testimony with emphasis and feeling.
It may well be that "Crazy Joe" Spaziano is the culprit of the worst order, but we must adhere to the principle that we convict people for crimes with which they are charged and not for crimes with which they are not charged.
The judgment of your strong editorial is reminiscent of Lincoln's lament long ago that the tragedy of the Civil War was that the best generals were newspaper publishers. Paraphrasing Lincoln, it seems our best judges are newspaper editorialists.
By Russell Troutman
The Orlando Sentinel
Thu. February 1, 1996