The trial and conviction of Jacob Dougan is well-known to criminal defense attorneys throughout Jacksonville. A decision rendered by the Florida Supreme Court last week marked a new chapter in his long and tragic story. The Court upheld the lower court’s decision granting the death-row inmate a new trial, 31 years after his original conviction.
In 1974, a young, white man named Stephen Orlando was found dead off a dirt road in Jacksonville Beach. The killer left a note near his body, styled as a “warning to the oppressive state.” It indicated that the atrocities and brutalizing of black people would no longer go unpunished. Shortly after police discovered the body, the killers sent a cassette tapes to the media, police, and family of the victim containing recordings describing the murder.
Dougan, who was 27 years old at the time of his arrest, stood trial with three other black co-defendants for the racially motivated murder. Dougan was a prominent and respected leader in the black community during a time when race relations were at a nadir. He was well-educated and spent his spare time counseling and teaching karate to black youths. His only criminal record prior to this incident was a contempt of court charge following a sit-down strike at a lunch counter where he and other black diners were refused service.
After nearly twenty years of post-conviction proceedings, during which time Dougan sat on death row, the Florida Supreme Court held that Dougan did not receive a fair trial. It first found that Dougan was entitled to relief because the state’s star witness, William Hearn, gave false testimony. Under a case called Giglio v. United States, a criminal defendant is entitled to a new trial where the state knowingly submits false testimony and does not act to correct it.
Hearn testified that he had pled guilty to the crime and expected to receive a life sentence.Ultimately, however, Hearn was only sentenced to fifteen years after entering a straight-up plea to the judge. After Hearn’s imprisonment, the prosecutors in Dougan’s case also advocated for his early release, which resulted in him only serving five years. The Court found the evidence showed Hearn had been promised a far more lenient sentence for his testimony than he had led the jury to believe.
Our own William Sheppard lent a hand to secure a new trial for Dougan. However, it was not in his usual capacity as a criminal defense lawyer, but as a witness. Specifically, Sheppard testified that Hearn’s sentencing judge normally used a form plea agreement, which was missing from Hearn’s file. This indicate that the state may have indeed promised Hearn a light sentence if he testified against Dougan.
The Court also found that Dougan deserved a new trial because of the deficient performance of his defense counsel at trial and on appeal. Dougan’s criminal defense lawyer had created a conflict of interest by agreeing to represent the other co-defendants in the case, and by having a relationship with Dougan’s sister. Further, the Court found that Dougan’s criminal defense lawyer’s performance fell below constitutional standards by advancing an argument that the victim was a narcotics dealer, without any evidence to back it up.
Justice Pariente wrote a concurring opinion arguing, even if Dougan was guilty of the murder, he should not have been sentenced to death. She quoted the dissenting opinion of Justice McDonald in Dougan’s original appeal of his death sentence to the Florida Supreme Court. McDonald believed that Dougan’s case was not simply a homicide. Rather, it was a social awareness killing born out of the deep racial divides in Duval County in the early 1970s. He opined that few killers approach having Dougan’s socially redeeming values. Pariente added her own thoughts to McDonald’s, noting it was a case of “many tragedies,” not only for the victim and his family, but that a promising individual like Dougan would be involved in a murder motivated by racial hatred.
Justice Pariente’s conclusion, which mark the last words of the opinion, captured the bitter-sweet nature of the culmination of Dougan’s twenty-year long battle for a fair trial: “Justice is at times an elusive word, but by granting Dougan a new trial, we restore some small measure of justice to remedy the injustices that occurred at the time of his original trial.”