State prosecutors drop pursuit of death penalty in 2 south Lee slayings
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY
State prosecutors recently dropped their pursuit of the death penalty in two south Lee County slayings. The most recent decision came Wednesday in the case of Richard Elkins, 21, a Cape Coral man accused of sexually assaulting and beating a man to death behind a Bonita Springs pool hall. In February, the state waived its intent to seek the death penalty against Cesar Contreras, 25, who is accused of killing Estero track star Adam Cortes. A spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office declined to elaborate on either case, citing the ongoing prosecutions.
Deborah Cortes, mother of Adam Cortes, said her family wanted the death penalty dropped from her son’s case. “As far as our family is concerned, with the death penalty in play, it just prolongs everything,” she said. “There are so many things you had to deal with.” Adam Cortes’ body was discovered in October 2007, dumped in his burning SUV and abandoned in Lehigh Acres. He had been severely beaten and then fatally shot in the head. According to reports, Cortes was hanging out with Contreras and several others whom he met earlier that night, when the suspect flew into a rage.
The trial has been postponed multiple times.
Deborah Cortes said prosecutors were talking about traveling to Contreras’ native Belize if they were to successfully prosecute the death penalty. “And it was going to go on and on,” Cortes said. Jurors in a death penalty case are asked to weigh aggravating factors against mitigating factors in a penalty phase that follows conviction. They then vote, by simple majority, how to advise the judge, who makes the final decision. Preparation for a penalty phase can be lengthy and complicated. When Fort Myers attorney David Brener defended Cash Feenz killer Kemar Johnston in Lee County, he flooded the court with a litany of experts and tests, from a psychiatrist to a sociologist to a brain scan expert.
Johnston’s defense was expensive, and it lengthened the wait for a trial. It also appeared to work. Johnston was sentenced to life in prison after jurors rejected a death penalty recommendation.
Brener is now representing Elkins.
He said he believes a good look at evidence in the case forced prosecutors to reverse their decision. “The case simply could not be considered, by any reasonable standards, the worst of the worst,” he said. Elkins, 18 at the time, was at Warehouse Billiards on Feb. 28, 2007, when he and a friend, Christopher Maner, 27, went outside with victim Obed “Paco” Flores, to smoke marijuana, according to reports. When Flores grabbed Elkins’ genitals, the teenager beat him viciously and sodomized him. He then paid his bar tab and returned to finish the man off with a shovel, investigators say. Brener said the presence of alcohol and drugs, Maner’s alleged involvement and Elkins’ age combined to cloud the case.
Attorneys in another south Lee County case are hopeful of sparing their client’s life. Chad Moreland, 27, is accused of fatally shooting convenience store clerk Gerald Rabon, 20, during an armed robbery in San Carlos Park. Moreland’s attorneys say the defendant is mentally retarded, which would make him ineligible for the death penalty. In a March hearing, three out of four doctors testified that Moreland, whose IQ is below 70, met the clinical definition of mental retardation. In an order that followed, Lee Circuit Judge Edward Volz wrote that Moreland did not meet the legal definition of mental retardation and that he was competent to stand trial.
“This is an area that will be addressed again at the appropriate time following a verdict by the jury, if necessary,” Volz wrote.