Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Crime and Punishment

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Crime and Punishment

Article excerpt

Questions of Happ's guilt resolved by confession

When Florida executed William Happ on Tuesday, there was palpable grief -- but not for him. It was for Angela Crowley, the young woman he brutally killed near Crystal River in 1986, and for her family's endless suffering.

It should not take nearly three decades for the guilty to get their just deserts. But whenever the state takes a life in the name of justice, the state has a moral obligation to be sure that the execution isn't "cruel" and that the condemned is actually guilty.

Both of those aspects had carried elements of doubt in Happ's case.

His death -- at the state prison near Starke -- was administered via an untested mix of drugs that several experts challenged as medically unethical. In the end the chemicals did their job, though witnesses reported some strange effects on Happ.

And as for the evidence of his guilt, that too was imperfect. Though compelling, the case against Happ was circumstantial -- his fingerprint on the outside of Crowley's car, but no identifiable DNA anywhere; no eyewitnesses to the kidnapping, aggravated sexual battery and strangling. Happ had an alibi (later disputed). A jailhouse informant, who said Happ confessed, declined to testify but his account of the crime was read to the jury.

When the Lake County jury convicted Happ in 1989, its recommendation for the death penalty was 9-3 -- short of the unanimous standard required in some states. There were also trial errors that fueled years of appeals.

Shadows of doubts

All of these factors cast shadows on the certainty of the case and caused many of the delays on the road to execution. Few people believed Happ innocent but, against the high stakes of the death penalty, any doubt is troubling.

Last month, Happ chose to quit fighting the ultimate penalty. With his execution pending, he told a judge he'd had a long time to think about it and wanted no more appeals, according to news reports. …

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