Seth Penalver

The case of Seth Penalver has brought to mind many issues I have with not just the justice system, but also the injustices of the system, not just to those like Seth, who are later found to be innocent but just to the former inmate in general.  As a society we complain about how criminals so often end up back in jail because they have reoffended but we do not talk about why they often do so.  

I have seen first hand someone who spent over a decade in prison for a crime they committed be simply released out into the world, with nothing.  In fact, the person I know that this occurred with was supposed to remain under supervision upon his release from prison.  His sentenced had required that his first three years would be served on house arrest, as well as a term of probation for ten years.  No family member was in a position to take this man in so he was to go to a half way house. A prison official took him there.  Except, no one apparently checked with the half way house to see if they could or even would take him and when it was discovered they would not, the prison official simply dropped the former inmate off and headed back to the prison.  Now, the man had not been in prison for murder, but that did not mean the community was safe.  Not only that but not only was he left with no money or housing or anything else, he was not given numbers for resources that would help with a job, a home, learning a skill, or even learning how to enter back into society.  And this was a man who WAS guilty of his crime.  What about those who spend years in prison and are then exonerated?

Well some would argue that they get compensation.  Well, that is not always true.  First off not every state even has such a law on the books that allows compensation to those who were wrongly imprisoned and those that do often have strict rules in even granting it.  On top of that even those who are lucky enough to get compensation through their state generally do not get much compared to the life they lost, but they even generally have to wait years before they even get it.  From a legal sense those exonerated have nothing on their record as far as the legal sense, at least not from the crimes they were exonerated from but at the very least they have to explain to potential employers where they have been the last several years when they do not have a work record.  And just like those who did their crime and did their time, these people are simply dumped on the street without any resources available to help them fit into society.  Some can argue that is the price one pays for committing a crime, at least when it comes to the guilty ones, although I disagree with that assessment.  But again, what about those who are released after spending time for a crime they did not commit (or at the very least the state could not prove)?

We argue that criminals cannot be rehabilitated and yet as a society we do nothing to help them rehabilitate.  We dump them on the street and hope someone will come around and help them or if there is help out there they find it on their own.  In the process we're banking on the fact that these people will not reoffend but confident enough we will catch them if they do.  

As you can tell this case has started one of my rampage thoughts and although in essence kept me on topic associated with this case I did so without details of this specific case.  So I guess it would be appropriate to share the details of this case and see if you too do not find the flaws in the system.  Others have seen flaws in this case also, but admittedly they are not the same flaws that I have seen.  Others contend that offenders are given more rights than they should be and that judges allow what they call ridiculous things overturn rulings and judgments.  The family members of the victims in this case feel just that way. I sympathize with them, but not sure I can agree with them.

On June 26, 1994 the police in Palm Beach Florida were called to the scene of a car fire along side a road.  The car belonged to Casmir Sucharski who owned a local nightclub called Casey's Nickelodean.  An officer went to Sucharski's home and knocked but there was no answer so he left a note on the door about the car.

The following day a woman called the police department to say her daughter, Marie Rogers and her friend Sharon Anderson had gone to Casey's Nickelodean on June 25th and neither had returned.  An officer first went to the nightclub and inquired about the two women.  He was told that the last they had been seen was with the owner, Casmir Sucharski when the three left together in the early morning of June 26th.  Next the officer went to Sucharski's home.  There he saw Sharon's car sitting in the driveway and on the door was the note left the day before by the officer about the car.  The officer knocked and received no answer so he looked in the windows as much as he could.  Inside he saw the bodies of three people laying inside.  

Once inside investigators would find the bodies of Sucharski, Rogers and Anderson.  All three had been shot in the back of the head. But, that is not all they would find.  They would find a video from the home security surveillance of the entire crime.  The video would show two men breaking into the home, beating Sucharski, chancing Anderson and later the execution murders of the three victims.  

One of the perpetrators in the video, that was at best extremely "grainy" and at worse, dark, worse a hat and sunglasses during the entire video.  The other had covered his face for part of the time but later had allowed his face to be seen. Investigators knew to identify these two men the case against them would be a slam dunk, well at least that is probably what they thought.  It seems they did not take into account how difficult it would be to positively identify the subjects from the video and it seems they put all their eggs in that basket alone.  

Three weeks later Metro-Dade County police contacted the Palm Beach police and said they had arrested a man by the name of Pablo Ibar on charges of burglary and robbery and they believed he was the man that had covered his face in their video.  This lead the investigators to talk to those who knew Ibar starting with one of two men that were his roommates.  The man would claim after seeing the video that the Ibar was the man who had covered his face in the beginning of the video and that the other man, the one with the sunglasses and the hat was their other roommate, Seth Penalver.  Investigator got an arrest warrant for Penalver and because of this he turned himself in.

Both men would proclaim their innocence as they had a joint trial in 1997.  It appears that the only thing linking them to the crime was the ID on the video from the roommate.  Investigators had found no murder weapon, fingerprints, stolen items or even DNA linking the men.  Police officers would claim that one other person had identified Ibar in the video, his mother.  They claim she did so in a still photo from the video she was shown prior to her being aware of it being the crime scene.  At trial she would recant this statement. But, I must be fair in saying I am unsure if this information from his mother was presented in Ibar's first, or second trial.  The jurors in the joint 1997 trial could not agree on a verdict and so a mistrial was declared.

The state then decided to try the men separately.  Penalver's next trial began in 1999.  It appears that the only person that seemingly was convinced the two men in the video were Penalver and Ibar was their former roommate. Most of those who knew Penalver said either the man was not him or they could not tell. One stated they could not tell by the face (remember this guy had a hat and sunglasses on) but it looked like the man walked the way Penalver did. Another had reportedly told police they believed it to be him but in court said he could not say for sure.  The state had even hired a facial recognition expert who would say with absolute certainty that the man in the video was Penalver.  

That being said the jury found Penalver guilty after a six month trial of three counts of murder, attempted robbery and burglary charges and he was sentenced to death. 

In June of 2000 Pablo Ibar was also convicted at his trial and was also sentenced to death.

Then in 2006 the Florida Supreme Court overturned Penalver's conviction on several counts.  They accused the prosecution of basically lying in saying that an alternate suspect could not have committed the crime because they were out of state when there was no evidence of this.  They also accused the prosecution of presenting evidence that Penalver had been suicidal at some point and implied that this was evidence of guilt.  The Supreme Court also accused the prosecution of attempting to sway the jury by telling them that a prosecution witness that had changed their testimony had been unduly influenced by the defense while again there was no proof of this.  The court pointed out that while these "errors" alone may not have made a significant difference in the outcome the fact that the prosecution was weak in the evidence against him made the errors more significant.

I found an interesting quote by a law professor... "The weaker the rest of the evidence, the more significant the mistakes are. The stronger the remaining evidence, the impact of mistakes goes down."  I do not believe the quote was specifically for this case, however, it does apply.  The fact of the matter is that there was no real evidence that Penalver was the perpetrator beyond only one person, who it is rumored was given reward money, positively identifying him on the video.  No one else could say for sure and there were no forensics tying him to the scene.  

It took six more years of legal wrangling back and forth but in after a five month trial in 2012 a jury found Seth Penalver not guilty.  Pablo Ibar's attorney's attempted to also have his case looked at but his case seemed to be continually upheld and they were told the issues in Penalver's case and those which had caused the state Supreme Court to grant him a new trial did not effect him. Penalver was released, Ibar remained on death row.

One interesting note is that Seth Penalver gives a lot of credit for his release to a woman named Rosalie Bolin.  I recently blogged about Rosalie's husband, Oscar who was eventually executed by the state of Florida in 2016.  Rosalie had worked for the public defenders office and later in a private business as an investigator helping with death penalty cases.  Seth Penalver and Oscar Bolin apparently were housed in side by side cells at some point.  

Once on the outside Penalver had to learn how to function in society once more. He had spent eighteen years in prison, thirteen of those were on death row.  He has been very vocal about the fact that he was just simply released and given no tools or resources to help him with essential needs in life.  Florida has a Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Fund but he is not eligible because prior to the murders that he was held for he had two nonviolent felonies and that excludes him from being able to collect.  

The families of the victims were obviously not happy with Penalver's third trial, let alone his release and expressed their disdain.  In February of 2016 they became more angry as the Florida Supreme Court had now ruled that Pablo Ibar was entitled to a new trial.  Their reasoning was the fact that his defense had failed to retain their own facial recognition expert to challenge the prosecution and even the prosecutions expert was not completely certain.  Seth Penalver was quoted in an article about Ibar's new trial saying that evidence points to two other people and multiple other suspects and that the police and prosecutors have held that from the juries.  The state argued for a rehearing on this issue but in May of 2016 that was denied.  One of the reasons given was that despite the prosecution stating they had a shirt in evidence in which they claim Ibar used to cover his face for part of the crime, Ibar's DNA is not present. In July of 2016 Ibar was taken from the prison system and returned to the Broward County jail where he sit awaiting his next trial.  

Seth Penalver was the 142nd person exonerated from death row since 1973 and was the 24th from Florida alone.  

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