Saturday, December 5, 2009

articles in today's paper December 5, 2009

Herald Tribune

It's death for the man who killed Denise Lee

Paying the price

Justice in Denise Lee case, but harsh realities remain

Published: Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 at 8:10 p.m.
There are crimes so heinous, with guilt so certain, that they melt opposition to the death penalty.

The 2008 abduction, rape and murder of North Port mom Denise Lee is one such crime.

Friday, a Sarasota judge sentenced Lee's killer, Michael King, to the ultimate punishment. The sentence followed the unanimous recommendation of the jury that found King guilty of first-degree murder and other horrible offenses.

By most measures, the sentence is just. But any satisfaction that may be taken from it must be weighed against harsh realities.

The first and most tragic of these is that King's execution will not bring back the murdered woman, nor restore the normal life that her husband and two young children once had.

The second is that a death penalty automatically triggers procedures that could delay execution for years, putting the family on an agonizing merry-go-round of appeals.

The third is that this and dozens of other capital cases drain the resources of Florida's criminal justice system.

Because of heightened constitutional requirements, death penalty cases are far more expensive than murder trials in which life with no possibility of parole is sought.

In Florida, the difference between death-penalty and life-without-parole adds up to tens of millions of dollars per year, studies indicate.

It is wrong to put a price tag on justice. But at a time when recession has forced serious budget cuts on law enforcement agencies and the courts, who can feel good about spending so much on a punishment that does so little for crime prevention?

Studies indicate that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to violent crime, especially in comparison with the less expensive life-without-parole option.

The millions spent on death-penalty pursuits could pay for important crime prevention measures. They could fund additional police, probation and corrections officers, investigators and prosecutors.

They could fund additional crime labs to process large backlogs in DNA samples and evidence.

They could fund substance-abuse programs and facilities for handling severe mental illness.

The dollars could even fund better 9-1-1 emergency communications -- a critical lifesaving link that was disastrously mishandled in Lee's case, causing a missed opportunity to save her.

Budgets aside, the trial and conviction of Michael King stand as proof that, even amid cuts and shortages, the justice system worked. Law enforcement found, analyzed and preserved crucial evidence; the killer was caught; and a jury of his peers convicted him.

Jurors, the judge, and probably the vast majority of Southwest Florida residents agree that King deserves the death penalty.

The punishment fits the crime. It's the cost -- not the penalty -- that is out of line.

From the Sun

King sentenced to death

SARASOTA -- Sobs reverberated across the courtroom Friday as family members of Denise Amber Lee reacted to Michael King getting the death penalty for her murder.

An elderly man sitting in front of King's parents at the Sarasota County Courthouse, who wore a button of Denise smiling, raised his fists in the air twice and grinned as 12th Circuit Judge Deno Economou read from his 45-page decision.

A clean-shaven King stared ahead and didn't move.

The 38-year-old also showed no emotion when the judge read how, on Jan. 17, 2008, King kidnapped Lee from her North Port home at gunpoint. He brought her to his home for about three hours, raped her, then drove her to his cousin's house to borrow a shovel, a flashlight and a gas can to dispose of her body. He promised to let the 21-year-old mother of two young sons go, but then shot her and buried her remains in a wooded area off Toledo Blade Boulevard.

Denise's widower, Nathan, was joined by his parents, Mark and Peggy, as well as her parents, Rick and Susan Goff, and other family members. At times they cried as the judge read graphic details of the rape and spoke of her bruising and the fatal gunshot wound above her eyebrow.

Economou's voice cracked several times as he read Denise's words from her desperate 911 call. He said Denise managed to call 911 without King knowing. She gave the operator valuable information, such as her address and that she was bound and could not see where she was. She repeatedly begged for King -- who was a stranger to her -- to let her go.

The judge said King's "words and actions" revealed a crime that was "conscienceless, pitiless and unnecessarily tortuous with an utter indifference to Denise's suffering.

"His telling her that he would let her go as soon as she gave him the cell phone was a lie, knowing full well that he was going to take her to a secluded area and murder her," Economou said.

The judge weighed little consideration for the arguments that King had a low IQ, suffered an alleged brain injury when he was 6, and was paranoid, which may have been contributing factors to him killing Denise.

Assistant State Attorney Lon Arend said Denise's actions helped solve the case.

"She was the best witness we had," Arend said of Denise leaving her heart-shaped ring and strands of her hair in King's Camaro for investigators to link her to her killer.

Arend said he didn't buy King's bizarre, catatonic-like behavior during his three-week trial.

"I think he faked a mental illness," Arend said.

Outside the courthouse, Nathan joined the Goffs to thank everyone who has been supportive. He said he made "lifelong friends" through the process.

"I want to thank Denise," he said. "She was the most awesome person I've ever known. She was a wonderful wife and mother."

Rick Goff, a 26-year veteran with the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, agreed, adding several longtime friends from out of state came to support them in court. For some of them, it was the first time hearing the judge's overview of the murder.

"We wouldn't have found Denise or him (King) if it weren't for Denise leaving behind clues," Goff said. "I could not have done what she did. She was a great detective."

Goff said he understands there will be appeals -- but said he cannot wait until King is executed.

"I will rent the bus for us to go up there and watch that man die," he said. "I may have to go in a wheelchair (following years of appeals), but myself and my family will be there."

Several jurors, who have formed a bond with each other and have met with Nathan and his sons, Noah and Adam, following the trial, were in court Friday.

"I'm so happy that he is going to pay for what he did to that beautiful girl," said Pat O'Quinn, who was one of 12 jurors who recommended the death penalty for King in September.

O'Quinn says she has been following Nathan's fight against the CCSO in a wrongful death lawsuit he filed in October. Nathan contends the CCSO was negligent in not sending any deputies to Toledo Blade Boulevard on the night Denise was kidnapped, despite receiving a 911 call from Jane Kowalski saying there was a person screaming and banging on the window in the back seat of the Camaro next to her.

Reached by phone Friday night, Kowalski, of Tampa, said she was pleased with the judge's decision.

"If there was any case for the death penalty, this was one," she said. "It shouldn't be anything else."

After most left the courthouse Friday, North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis returned to Nathan the ring and necklace -- that was marked as "evidence" for nearly two years -- that Nathan had given to Denise.

Sun staff writers Carol Sakowitz and Anne Klockenkemper contributed to this report.



North Port Community News Editor

Case Ends, Appeals Begin

SARASOTA -- Twelfth Circuit Judge Deno Economou handed down the death penalty Friday for convicted killer Michael King in the 2008 murder of young mother of two, Denise Amber Lee.

For those connected to the case, one question remains.

What's next?

* King's death sentence automatically will be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, according to Dennis Menendez, spokesman for the 12th Judicial Circuit. The process could take at least three years, and if upheld, there is a likelihood that it will be 15 years before King is executed.

There are 387 inmates currently on Florida's death row. King makes it 388.

* King himself will wait in a Sarasota County Jail cell until he is transferred to a state penitentiary, according to Maj. Jim Lilly, who oversees county corrections operations. No date has been scheduled for the transfer.

* Denise's younger sister, Amanda Goff, answered, "Yes and no," when asked Friday if the judge's decision puts the case to rest for her.

"(There's an) end in the sense that the trial is completely over," she said. "But it's not over until the day he dies."

For now, she said, "I can put it out of my mind."

Amanda will return to the University of Central Florida, where the school semester will end next week. She also holds two jobs in Orlando.

Friends at school have been great, she said, and added one of them came to the Sarasota County Courthouse to support the family.

She had one final thought before leaving the courthouse: "I want to thank the jury. They were great."

* North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis said his department is starting to prepare for the Coralrose Fullwood murder trial, scheduled to begin in April. Patrick Murphy, 28, is accused in the 6-year-old's 2006 slaying.

"We'll move to the next case and, sadly, the next case is Coralrose," he said.

Preparations will involve up to five detectives, he said, and the department has been given "incredible assistance" almost daily by members of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office.

Looking over to where journalists waited for a press conference by the Lee and Goff families, a somber Lewis said they "are now part of the North Port police family."

"That's not a cliché," he added.

* In October, Nathan filed a wrongful death suit against the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office. He contends the CCSO was negligent for not sending any deputies to Toledo Blade Boulevard on the night Denise was kidnapped, despite receiving a 911 call from the area saying a man driving a dark Camaro had a person screaming and banging on the window for help in his back seat. Last month, the CCSO filed a motion to dismiss the suit. A judge will determine if the case will continue.

* David Garofalo, North Port City Commission chair, attended Friday's hearing. Garofalo has been part of the local movement to set standards for 911 operators.

Friday, Garofalo said he has 411 letters ready to send to other Florida municipalities asking them to support legislation making its way to law in Tallahassee.

That legislation, he said, could "pave the way for the rest of the country."

* Bonnie Turgeon of Sarasota is a stranger to the Lee and Goff families but she was in court Friday, just as she had been for King's trial.

Turgeon said she was there to support the man who sold her and her family a TV set at Best Buy in January. When she went home, she saw the salesman -- Nathan Lee -- on that TV.

During the trial, Turgeon said she met Nathan's mother, Peggy, and learned of a cookbook that she and Denise's mother, Susan, were compiling as a fundraiser. Turgeon said she bought one.

Turgeon spoke Friday of Denise's two young sons. She said Peggy told her the 2-year-old, Noah, remembers the last words his mother said to him: "Goodbye ... and I love you."



North Port Assistant Editor