February 2, 2014
Reprieve, a UK-based legal charity, has censured the Irish government for failing to provide adequate support to Michael Fitzpatrick, an Irish citizen who spent over a decade on death row in Florida and is now up for a retrial. The Irish government has denied the allegation.
Fitzpatrick, who was born in the US, was granted dual Irish citizenship in September 2013. He was eligible to apply through one of his grandmothers, who was born in Tipperary and immigrated to America.
According to a statement released by Reprieve, which aids in cases around the world where it feels human rights are most at risk, the Irish government refused to send a representative to a key hearing in Fitzpatrick’s case on January 10.
“It is standard practice for government officials to provide extensive consular assistance to nationals imprisoned abroad, including attending hearings and trials to ensure that minimum standards are upheld,” the release said.
Capital punishment was abolished in Ireland in 1964.
Fitzpatrick, 51, was convicted in 2001 for the 1996 rape and first-degree murder of Laura Romines, 28, who was found in the early hours of August 18 wandering a rural road in Land O’Lakes, Florida, naked and with her throat slit. She was hospitalized and died three weeks later.
Romines told first responders at the scene that she had been attacked by a man named “Steve,” who investigators first presumed to be Stephen Kirk, a motel security guard. Romines had been staying with Kirk and his wife. Kirk was exculpated by a “significant amount” of evidence, including numerous witnesses who had seen him at work at the time of the attack.
Romines’ boyfriend, Joe Galbert, who had recently kicked her out of the Motel 6 room where they had been living, was eliminated as a suspect because he was in jail at the time.
Police zeroed in on Fitzpatrick, who had been working as a pizza delivery man, because witnesses reported seeing him with Romines at various points the day before, and because the semen found by a SAVE (sexual assault victim examination) performed on Romines at the hospital was identified as his. After first denying that he had any sexual encounter with Romines, Fitzpatrick claimed that it was consensual and had taken place on the morning of the 17th.
Fingernail scrapings taken from Romines during the SAVE test indicated the potential involvement of another, unidentified male.
In 2001, Fitzpatrick was sentenced with 30 years in prison and the death penalty, to be served concurrently. His direct appeal was affirmed.
His post-conviction appeal began in 2005, and on June 27 of last year the Florida Supreme Court unanimously upheld the circuit court’s decision that Fitzpatrick should be granted a retrial due to overwhelming evidence that his first attorney, Bill Ebel, failed to defend him adequately.
Mark Gruber, one of the attorneys from Capital Collateral Regional Counsel who handled Fitzpatrick’s post-conviction appeal, told IrishCentral that Ebel “had the case for four years and never obtained the assistance of anyone. Not a co-counsel, not an expert witness, not a private investigator. The prosecution brought in expert witnesses, a medical examiner, and there just wasn’t any rebuttal. . . . The prosecutor made that exact argument during closing arguments to the jury: ‘Here’s all this scientific evidence that we brought in and there hasn’t been any challenge to it.’ So that’s what we did in post-conviction.”
The medical experts consulted for the post-conviction proceedings stated that many of the conclusions drawn by the state in Fitzpatrick’s first trial were inaccurate or unfounded, and that some of the experts it brought to the stand were not qualified to testify in that capacity.
After Fitzpatrick’s citizenship was confirmed in September, Reprieve asked the Irish government to become involved in his case. Soon after, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued a release stating that they were “providing consular assistance to Mr. Fitzpatrick and [would] notify the relevant US authorities of our interest in the case.”
At the January 10 hearing, the state was attempting to link Fitzpatrick to the unsolved 1992 murder of a woman in Tampa, FL. According to Fitzpatrick’s current attorney, Phil Hindahl, the hearing has been extended and will continue on February 27.
In Reprieve’s most recent release, Maya Foa, Director of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “Michael has already spent more than ten years on death row because of a horrifically unfair first trial. The Irish government could step in to ensure that history does not repeat itself and yet they are refusing to do even the bare minimum.”
In response to inquiries made to the Consulate General of Ireland in Atlanta, under whose jurisdiction Florida falls, the DFA Press Office stated via email that the department is “offering full consular assistance to Mr. Michael Fitzpatrick and will continue to do so as required. . . . We have notified the relevant US authorities of our interest in the case, which is going through normal judicial procedure in the United States.
“Departmental representatives would not routinely attend such hearings, particularly when we are satisfied that the Irish citizen involved has full access to legal counsel. We do maintain contact with the citizen’s lawyers to ensure that we are informed about proceedings, and we are also in contact with the NGO Reprieve on this case.”
The email also noted that, although the Irish government is not automatically entitled to consular prison visits with American citizens being tried in a US court, they had “sought and were granted one, which was undertaken by the Consul General Paul Gleason based in Atlanta in October 2013.”
Fitzpatrick’s attorney confirmed this. “I’ve had contact with the Consulate General of Ireland [in Atlanta] and I think that they intend on appearing in future hearings. As far as the hearing on January 10, for some reason they weren’t able to attend. I do know that [Atlanta Consul General] Paul Gleason, has been to the local jail and has met with Mr. Fitzpatrick. It was several months ago, but he has offered and is providing consular services, whatever that entails. . . so that’s their role right now as far as their input and their participation in the trial.”
The communications officers at Reprieve declined to provide further information as to what steps they would like to see the Irish government take on Fitzpatrick’s behalf.
Fitzpatrick’s retrial will begin on June 16.