This piece by Ken Schwencke is based on testimony from trial transcript, found here.
Jean Marc Blanc of Florida was convicted in 1987 and sentenced to death for a crime that happened two years earlier in the year when he was sixteen. In the late spring of 1987 a 15-year-old girl, D'Lisa Penrose, went missing in her hometown of Orange City, Florida. When her body was found a month later, it had been battered and stabbed to death. Prosecutors used Blanc’s confession to make their case, and he pleaded guilty in 1989 to first-degree murder. But the evidence was weak. Besides Blanc’s confession and the physical evidence of the crime, there was no eyewitness, no motive, no explanation for the crime, no evidence of any sexual crime. In his third appeal of the sentence, Blanc claimed he had not understood the legal process and had been wrongly put on trial without a lawyer.
That appeal was dismissed. Yet the prisoner continued to press his claim, and his supporters made a renewed effort to appeal based on the new evidence that wasn’t in the record the first time around, namely that Blanc had been 13 years old at the time of the crime. In 2010 an appeals court refused to reopen the case, and the prisoner refused to give up. But then the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on an analogous case, granted a stay and reversed the denial of a stay that had been made by the U.S. District Court. The prisoner continued to insist on new appeals, and it was finally heard before a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The arguments in the hearing were instructive. At first the prisoner’s lawyer argued that it was “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to impose the death penalty on a minor. Her argument was that the judge should not have allowed Blanc to enter his plea in “adolescent” manner, for he hadn’t made an informed decision. In her view the judge, whose ruling had violated Blanc’s due process rights, should have denied the plea in boy’s form and held a trial in adult court. In this view the difference between male and female children, between puberty and adolescence, made the age of an individual now very different from his or her teen years. She had a strong rebuttal from the government’s attorney, who said that age was a matter of birthright, not a matter of birthright and birthyear. At this point the courtroom broke into applause and applause again.
This apparently closed the matter and the panel decided unanimously that the judge had done no wrong. But the entire situation exposed a chasm between the defendant’s original rationale in the early part of the court proceedings and the way he presented it in the course of his closing argument at the end. He sought to have his initial guilty plea thrown out, but then he had a second opportunity to have his death sentence overturned and that opportunity entailed a new defense team and a new trial lawyer. The defense attorney, again at the beginning of the proceedings, had pointed out the legal differences between the situation when he was seventeen and when he was thirteen. His appeal to the judge was clearly based on that standpoint. Now, at the end of the trial, he stated: “I wasn’t lying then, I’m not lying now.” What did this say? Certainly the judge had made a mistake to approve the first pleading in “adolescent” form and he did so unjustly. The case should not have been heard and, therefore, it was wrong for him to have admitted the plea in boy’s form. But his new appeal must have taken into account the powerful moral and legal argument for the right of juveniles to be judged in their own age, and the judge should have denied his plea, but the defense argued that the adult judge had done just that. Who did wrong? It seemed clear that the defense attorney had done even more than the judge.
Did that matter? It mattered in the end. The 11th Circuit did not say so. After all, in this case, being twelve years old at the time of the crime did not matter at all. It was all right for the judge to allow the plea and for the defendant to plead guilty. And what did that saying of carelessness and slightness say to the lawyer who had presented that defence? Certainly it did not aid his case.
What does this teach us? Quite a lot, as long as the main character in the story is not a murderer. Just then the simple question has taken on complicated results. That there are people like Blanc in the midst of public processes