Seth Penalver was freed after spending 18 years in prison, including 13 years on death row
In 2012, a jury found him not guilty in the 1994 shooting deaths of three people
But as he's tried to put his life back together, the stigma of his incarceration has followed him
“Death Row Stories” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Seth Penalver dropped to the floor and wept in his chair when a Florida jury declared him not guilty in the shooting deaths of three people during a 1994 home invasion.
After three trials and 18 years in prison – including 13 on death row – a Broward County jury in 2012 found Penalver not guilty of capital murder in the 1994 slayings of Casmir Sucharski, 48, Marie Rogers, 25, and Sharon Anderson, 25.
Little did Penalver know about the struggles that lay ahead. His release from prison marked a new chapter, one that’s been filled with ups and downs, given his prolonged absence from society.
Experts say the state could help improve prospects for former death row inmates by providing monetary compensation and reintegration services. But Penalver says the state has done nothing to help him find a job, a home or skill up for the modern job market.
Under a provision of Florida’s Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act known as the “clean hands” provision, Penalver is ineligible for monetary compensation from the state because of two prior nonviolent felonies unrelated to the triple slayings he was accused of.
“Just because I had prior felonies in the past that shouldn’t mean I can’t be compensated for what was done to me,” he said. “It’s hard getting back on your feet; anything would help.”
His case is not unique. Only 30 states have laws that provide monetary compensation to wrongly convicted people, which can include death row exonerees. And in many states, including Florida, they come with limits. In some states, access to monetary compensation is available only for people exonerated by DNA evidence or who don’t have prior felonies; in others, an official gubernatorial pardon is required.
Advocates who study reintegration say it’s the state’s way of “limiting” its responsibility for its own mistake.
“The state does not like to admit its fault,” said University of North Carolina-Greensboro professor Saundra Westervelt, author of “Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity.”
Money alone will not help death row exonerees or those wrongly convicted. It needs to be part of a host of reintegration services for wrongly convicted people, said Westervelt, a board member of Witness to Innocence, an anti-capital punishment group that supports former death row inmates.
“It’s a way for the state to say we are reluctant to admit fault and to provide assistance for something we did wrong, so we’re going to pick out the most pristine cases, the most innocent of the innocent.”
A crime unfolds on video
Local media dubbed the triple slayings the “Casey’s Nickelodeon murders” because Sucharski was an owner of Casey’s Nickelodeon, a Miramar nightclub where he met aspiring models Rogers and Anderson. The three were shot dead in Sucharski’s home in Miramar, Florida, early in the morning of June 26, 1994.
Penalver and co-defendant Pablo Ibar were charged in the crime after witnesses identified them in grainy home surveillance video showing two men breaking into Sucharski’s home. Penalver surrendered to law enforcement in August 1994 after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Penalver stood trial three times for the murders. His first trial with Ibar in 1997 ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt. The cases were severed, and Penalver was tried again in 1999 and sentenced to death on charges of murder, attempted robbery and burglary.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned Penalver’s verdict in 2006 based on a series of evidentiary and constitutional errors related to witness testimony and identification. Given the absence of physical evidence connecting Penalver to the crime and questions about the identification of the men in the surveillance video, “the witnesses’ statements presented at trial were of paramount importance,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
An expert witness who viewed the tape said that he couldn’t identify anyone from it, but that the person in the video had facial characteristics inconsistent with Penalver’s facial structure. Some people who knew Penalver said the video wasn’t him or they couldn’t tell. One said she couldn’t tell from the face, but the subject’s gait was like Penalver’s. Another told the police that it was Penalver, but then testified in court that she couldn’t say whether it was him or not.
With respect to this last witness, the prosecution argued that she changed her testimony after meeting with the defense, improperly suggesting – with no evidence to support it – that the defense had tampered with her, the court found.
The court also found that the prosecution improperly admitted hearsay testimony that an alternate suspect was out of state, when there was no evidence that the suspect was out of state. The prosecution also presented evidence implying that Penalver had been suicidal and wrongly used that suggestion to imply consciousness of guilt, the court said.
“In light of the scant evidence connecting Penalver to this murder and the consequent importance of identifying the individual depicted on the videotape in sunglasses and hat, we conclude that the improperly admitted evidence and the State’s suggestion that the defense tampered with or suborned perjury by an identification witness meet the cumulative error requirements outlined above and require reversal,” the court said in its opinion.
The video magnified the uncertainty, making the strength of the remaining evidence all the more important, said Temple University law professor Jules Epstein, who specializes in forensics. Appellate courts assess error based on the magnitude of the mistakes and their cumulative impact.
“The weaker the rest of the evidence, the more significant the mistakes are. Conversely, the stronger the remaining evidence, the impact of mistake goes down,” Epstein said.
Stepping up for the wrongfully convicted
Despite his acquittal, Penalver says he struggles to find work because of his background, which includes two prior non-violent felonies for dealing in stolen property and shooting into an unoccupied dwelling.
“You Google my name and it lights up the screen. I’m 20 years minus a resume, so it’s hard,” he said.
He says he gets by on odd jobs and government assistance in the form of food stamps. He would like to attend school or learn a trade, but living hand to mouth makes it hard to find time or money for education, Penalver said.
Experts say Penalver’s struggles with reintegration are typical for death row exonerees or people found to be wrongly convicted. On paper, they’re no longer offenders – but they’re not quite free of the stigma or psychological impact of their incarceration.
The duration of their incarceration can strain personal relationships, creating a void in support systems after their release. Additionally, they often lack access to the same career or counseling services available to parolees because technically, they’re not on parole.
For those who receive compensation, often it comes years after their release, which is when they need it most, Westervelt said. Many walk out of prison with little more than bus fare.
Sometimes, obtaining monetary compensation requires a record expungement or formal gubernatorial pardon. In cases that don’t get automatically expunged, the financial burden falls on the person, Westervelt said.
“It’s important to have a policy but you have to make sure the policy works so people can get those resources.”
Tune in to “Death Row Stories,” Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT, to learn more about the home surveillance that formed the case against Seth Penalver.