9 Investigates: Wave of death row inmates getting chance to live

By: Christoper Heath

Updated:

ORLANDO, Fla. - One man killed a deputy and another man nearly got away with murder. Both men were sentenced to die for their crimes; however, both are now looking at the possibility of life in prison instead.

Florida has 384 inmates on death row that are now getting a second look, and may end up having their death sentences commuted to life without parole.  

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“It just tears apart the family members, having to go through this. It’s like ripping a scab off, just opens an old wound and rubbing salt in it,” said former Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator Tommy Ray, who is now the chief investigator for the law firm of Howell & Thornhill. 

Ray has a personal connection to two of these cases: in one he lost a friend, in the other, he cracked a cold case and brought a killer to justice. 

“Some cases you take personal, and this case I took personal,” Ray said referring to the case of businessman Nelson Serrano. 

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On Dec. 3, 1997, Serrano flew from Atlanta, to Orlando. Once in Orlando he rented a car, drove to his former place of work in Bartow and killed his former business partner George Gonsalves, as well as three others: Frank Dosso, Diane Patisso, and George Patisso.

Serrano then drove to Tampa, bought a round-trip ticket and flew back to Atlanta.  

Investigators initially looked into Serrano for the murders, but video of him in Atlanta at a hotel seemed to rule him out. 

Ray eventually connected Serrano to a pseudonym used on a flight manifest as well as discovering a parking stub from Orlando International Airport with Serrano’s fingerprint on it. 

Photos: Death row inmates in Orange County

“It was well planned out, there is no doubt,” Ray said. “It just shows how cold-blooded and calculated he was.” 

On June 26, 2007, almost a decade after the murders, Serrano was sentenced to death. However, the jury in his case did not reach a unanimous decision for death, something the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. Because of that, Serrano is now eligible to have a new sentencing hearing. 

The other case headed back is that of Paul Beasley Johnson. 

In 1981, Johnson killed a taxi driver, William Evans, in Polk County.  Hitched a ride with a couple, killing the man, Darrell Beasley (no relation), and eventually ambushing Polk County Deputy Theron (TA) Burnham. 

Tommy Ray went through the academy with TA Burnham. The night that Johnson killed Burnham, Ray and his partner responded to the call. 

“As we are going down that road, we hear an alert tone, officer down,” says Ray.  “I pull up, I see my buddy’s car, the engine is still running, the door is open, the lights facing the drainage ditch area, blood on the ground. I’ll never forget it.” 

After a search, Johnson was located and arrested.  It took less than nine months for prosecutors to bring charges and secure a murder conviction and the death sentence.  But Johnson, like Serrano, did not receive a unanimous recommendation for death, and is also looking a new sentencing hearing. 

“He’s had so many trials and appeals, it’s ridiculous,” says Ray.  “Makes you sick to think there is such evil in the world.” 

For the last 15 years, Florida lawmakers have known they had a potential problem with death penalty cases. 

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ring v. Arizona that it is the jury, not a judge, that must determine the death sentence.

Florida lawmakers responded in 2016 by passing a law that required 10 out of 12 members on a jury to recommend death.

However, in October of 2016, the Florida Supreme Court threw out that law, saying jury decisions on the death sentence needed to be unanimous. 

Since then, cases have been going before the high court with death row inmates arguing for another sentencing hearing.  If the court agrees, cases are sent back to their original jurisdiction where prosecutors can either commute the sentence to life in prison without parole, or they can hold a new hearing in which the finding of death would need to be unanimous.

Since then, cases have been going before the high court with death row inmates arguing for another sentencing hearing.
If the court agrees, cases are sent back to their original jurisdiction, where prosecutors can either commute the sentence to life in prison without parole, or they can hold a new hearing in which the finding of death would need to be unanimous.

 

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