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Local death sentence cases still will take years to carry out

Published:   |   Updated: February 16, 2014 at 08:13 AM

SEBRING - These days it appears that there's some movement on death row, which houses prisoners whose cases typically languish for decades.

First there was Juan Carlos Chavez, who was executed last week for the murder and rape of 9-year-old Jimmy Royce in Redland in 1995. Then the next day, Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Robert Lavern Henry, who murdered two co-workers in 1987.

But at the State Attorney's Office in Highlands County, there's no expectation that Joshua Lee Altersberger, who killed Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Sottile on Feb. 5, 2007, will be executed anytime soon. Sottile had stopped Altersberger for a minor traffic law violation.

Still, Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin said a new law approved last year is helping to make the process faster, he said.

It may not seem that way, but "it is moving faster," he said.

Houchin is likely hoping the case will move much faster than the one for the only other death row inmate involved in a Highlands County murder, William Kelley, who was convicted in 1982 for the 1966 murder of Charles von Maxcy, a citrus baron.

Already in the Altersberger case, an entire room is being used to house files relating to the murder case. Included in that is five boxes containing 209 files. That's in addition to some other files and 107 computer disks with information provided by defense attorneys representing Altersberger.

Houchin said that a status hearing will be held Monday on the case. Eventually, a longer hearing will be held on motions filed in the case.

Most of the motions involve allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of the judicial proceeding in the Altersberger case. Altersberger plead guilty and a jury voted 9-3 to sentence him to death.

Defense attorneys are arguing that the original attorneys should have presented evidence during the sentencing phase that Altersberger was sexually abused as a child and hired a mitigation expert to help them present mitigating factors to support him receiving life imprisonment.

They also alleged that the original defense attorneys pressured Altersberger into pleading guilty, as opposed to going to a full trial.

As for the Kelley case, Houchin said, he believes it will be a while before its ready for the governor to sign a death warrant. Houchin, who is not handling the case, said it's his understanding the case is undergoing a series of hearings in Orlando.

The case has been on an arduous path through the system during the past four decades.

Authorities said that Irene von Maxcy, the wife of Charles von Maxcy, and her boyfriend, John Sweet, hired Kelley to murder Charles von Sweet, with plans to live off the inheritance. Years later, authorities said, Sweet was arrested on organized crime-related charges in Massachusetts and he then implicated Kelley. Irene von Maxcy served four years on a perjury charge. In 2001, she was 79 years old and living in Orlando, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

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