The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new trial for a convicted killer who has spent more than four decades on Death Row for a racially charged murder during civil unrest in the Jacksonville area.
The unanimous decision — a rarity in death penalty cases in which convictions are overturned — came amid intense scrutiny of the death penalty in Florida. The state's high court last week struck down a portion of a new death penalty law as unconstitutional because it does not require unanimous jury recommendations for the sentence to be imposed.
Jacob John Dougan, Jr., now 69, was convicted in the 1974 murder of Stephen Orlando, an 18-year-old white man, whose body was found in Jacksonville Beach accompanied by a note signed by the "Black Revolutionary Army."
Thursday's 58-page opinion upheld a lower court's ruling that Dougan should receive a new trial because of "multiple significant problems" in his trial, including the false testimony of a key witness who was a co-defendant in the case and who had received a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Dougan.
The court also found that Dougan's lawyer, Ernest Jackson, had two conflicts of interest "that adversely affected his performance" during the trial. Jackson had an extramarital affair with Dougan's sister and represented two other co-defendants in their appeals.
The lower court found that Jackson "essentially presented no defense" during the guilt phase of Dougan's trial.
Dougan, considered a leader in the black community before his 1975 conviction, was resentenced to death three times before Thursday's decision ordering a new trial.
"Clearly, this is a case of many tragedies. It is tragedy for the family of the young man who was murdered. It is a tragedy that over 40 years have passed since the murder occurred, of which Dougan has spent most of those years on Death Row. He now faces a retrial where he may be released from Death Row or even acquitted. It is a tragedy that Dougan, a young man with so much potential, was possibly involved in this murder that was motivated by racial hatred. It would be overly simplistic, however, to characterize this murder and trial merely as a byproduct of an earlier time when Jacksonville was dealing with deep wounds of past racial discrimination," Justice Barbara Pariente wrote in a concurring opinion.
Dougan's sentence should have been reduced to life imprisonment, Pariente wrote, agreeing with three dissenters in a 1992 Florida Supreme Court decision that upheld his death sentence.
"Justice is at times an elusive word, but by granting Dougan a new trial, we restore some small measure of justice to remedy the injustices that occurred at the time of his original trial," Pariente concluded.