TALLAHASSEE - Rory Conde, a death row inmate notorious as the "Tamiami Strangler" for the murders of six Miami prostitutes whose bodies were dumped along the road, couldn't persuade Florida's high court justices last year to overturn his conviction or his sentence.
Neither could Adam Davis, who choked, poisoned and stabbed his girlfriend's mother in her Tampa kitchen; nor could Charles Anderson, who drove over his stepdaughter in Broward County; or James Belcher, who raped, strangled and drowned a Jacksonville woman.
In a reversal from just a few years ago, most of the new death sentences coming to the Florida Supreme Court for initial review are being upheld. The state's high court affirmed 20 death sentences on initial review last year and ordered resentencings or new trials in just five cases.
In 1998, only six death sentences were affirmed after initial review. In the 26 rulings of such cases that year, 10 cases were sent back to the trial court for either a new trial or a new sentencing hearing and 10 death sentences were reduced to life by the Supreme Court.
The statistics cover only the first automatic review of new death sentences and not the outcomes of subsequent appeals.
It's unclear what's driving the turnaround. One theory is specialized training for lawyers and judges who handle death penalty cases in Florida.
The trend in Florida comes even as death penalty opponents across the country claim some victories in the highly charged national debate. They say fewer death sentences are being imposed, fewer executions are being carried out and public support for capital punishment has dropped across the country.
Florida has 365 people on death row - several have been there for decades - and has executed 58 condemned killers in the past 25 years.Larry Spalding, a Tallahassee attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who ran Florida's first office of death row lawyers from 1985 through 1993, said the court's rulings may be a result of prosecutors, defense attorney and trial judges doing a better job of avoiding mistakes.
"I think overall there's a lot more caution about the death penalty now with so many instances of wrongful convictions," said Nancy Daniels, a public defender in Tallahassee whose office handles appeals for death row inmates in 32 northern Florida counties.
Florida has had its share of death row inmates freed because of trial problems or wrongful convictions.
The most recent was Rudolph Holton in January 2003. His death sentence for the 1986 murder of a Tampa teen was overturned by a judge who cited problems with the trial. He was the 24th inmate to walk away from Florida's death row in 30 years and the third high-profile reversal in three years.
More death sentences are surviving because appeals courts have settled many legal doctrines and established rules that give trial judges clear guidance, said assistant deputy attorney general Carolyn Snurkowski.
The Supreme Court adopted a rule a few years ago requiring all judges to take a three-day course before handling a capital case. During the training, judges are always reminded that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst murders, said Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton.
State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, a lead lawmaker in the Legislature on capital punishment for several years, also said the system is working better.
"There are fewer cases getting the death penalty and when they do get the death penalty they have been reviewed and litigated thoroughly," he said.