At a moment when many people on Florida’s death row are optimistic about getting new sentencing hearings due to SCOTUS’s recent ruling in Hurst v. Florida, one man, Anthony Farina, has already won his. In Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a sentencing scheme in which the jury’s verdict is advisory is unconstitutional. In Anthony Farina’s case, the unconstitutional overriding authority in his sentencing was not a judge, but a wrathful God who believes in the death penalty, according to the elected state attorney who tried the case.
Even by capital defendant standards, and even by 18-year old capital defendant standards, Anthony Farina had a truly “horrendous childhood,” as described by Justices Anstead and Pariente in their dissenting opinion from his case’s first trip to the Florida Supreme Court in 2001. Living in extreme poverty and chaos with an alcoholic, high-school drop-out mother, the family slept in a tent on the beach and crowded into a room at a hotel frequented by prostitutes and drug addicts. Their mother urged Anthony and his younger brother Jeff to commit crimes for the family, saying that if they loved her and their younger sister, they would steal.
Mr. Farina moved across the country twenty times in his eighteen years before lockup and never completed a single year of school in the same school he started. He suffered sexual abuse so severe that it left him unable to control his bowels and with permanent organ damage.
At 18, Anthony and his then-16 year old brother Jeff, robbed a Taco Bell in Daytona Beach, Florida. Tragically, Anthony’s younger brother Jeff shot four employees and one of them – a teenaged girl – died. Both boys were sentenced to death.
After the initial death sentence was overturned because of error during jury selection, the state sought death a second time against Anthony and Jeff, and the same prosecutor, John Tanner, again tried the case. Serving as the elected State Attorney for the Seventh Judicial Circuit, Tanner used what can only be called a “biblical strategy” in his pursuit of another death sentence for Anthony Farina.
During jury selection, Tanner “told the prospective jurors that while they were expected to follow the judge’s instructions on the law, they were ‘not required, or expected, to abandon deeply held religious, moral, and conscientious, or other beliefs’ and that it was therefore ‘perfectly legitimate’ to disregard the judge’s legal instructions in the event of a conflict with moral or religious principles.” (From the Brief for the Respondent in Opposition filed at the United States Supreme Court, p.3 )
What happened next, though, is the real doozy.
Pastor James Davis was called by the defense to testify to Farina’s character. However, he was used by the state attorney to inject the idea of God’s sanctioning of the death penalty, and God’s wrath towards those who refuse to submit to authority. After eliciting testimony that the bible is “our instruction manual for life,” Tanner began asking Reverend Davis for his thoughts about specific biblical verses about submitting to authority. And Tanner wanted to make clear who, in the courtroom, that “authority” is:
Tanner: Well, I don’t want to say that defense attorneys aren’t saved. But they’re not the authorities, are they, they are defense lawyers versus the prosecutor?
At that point, Tanner decided it was time to cut to the chase. He handed Davis a copy of the bible and began instructing him to read verses from it into the record. And that is exactly what Davis did, including this helpful legal instruction:
Davis: Everyone must submit himself to the governor of authorities for there is no authority except for which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. And those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Tanner: The next verse deals with the prosecutor; does it not? What does it say?
Davis: For the rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear that the one in authority and do what is right and you will—jumps over here—he will commend you [sic].
Tanner: And the next verse?
Davis: Where he is God’s servant to do your good, but if you do wrong, be afraid for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant and agent to wrath, to bring punishment to the wrongdoer.
Tanner: And the next?
Davis: Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities not only because of the possible punishment, but also because of your conscience.
Finally, since this was a sentencing hearing after all, Tanner gets around to the pesky question of Christian mercy, redemption and forgiveness. In his view, the bible clearly tells us not to worry about all that stuff in Mr. Farina’s case:
Tanner: Is there anything in scripture that you find that says the laws and the government should excuse crimes because someone is repentant?
Davis: Specifically the law and government, no.
Tanner: Tells us as Christians forgive one another?
Tanner: But that’s not inconsistent with the government’s responsibility to uphold the law and bring the punishment which—and the word of the Lord, that you have just read, that bring judgment on themselves; is that correct?
Davis: That’s correct.
And there’s this gem:
Tanner: [W]hen Christ was on the cross there was a condemned felon beside him that repented and accepted Christ; is that right?
Davis: That’s right.
Tanner: But he didn’t take that felon off the cross or forgive the death penalty, did he?
Davis. No.” (all Tanner/Davis testimony from pp. 4-5 of the Brief in Opposition)
Both brothers were again sentenced to death, but Jeff’s sentence was eventually reduced to life without the possibility of parole because of a change in Florida Constitutional law prohibiting the execution of juveniles. The Florida Supreme Court upheld Anthony’s sentence twice – after it reversed Jeff’s sentence in 2001 and again, in 2006 in a 4-to-3 decision when the court declined to reverse the case in spite of the prosecutor’s use of religion.
Eventually a federal court – the Eleventh Circuit – threw out the sentence that resulted from this hearing, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. No ethics complaints related to the Farina case have been filed against John Tanner, who is no longer the elected state attorney for Volusia County. Hopefully the new sentencing hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, will involve clear instructions to the jury that they, and only they, are the final authorities with whom the decision of Anthony Farina’s life or death must rest.