An Apalachicola attorney has gained recognition across the state for her work seeking clemency for some underage offenders.
A story in the Nov. 15 issue of the Florida Bar News chronicles a clemency appeal Donna Duncan has been involved in for 10 years.
Duncan, of Apalachicola’s Sanders and Duncan law firm, gained statewide notice for her work on the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act and on the case of Tim Kane who spent 24 years behind bars for a crime committed when he was 14..
Duncan became involved with case while working as an intern for Paul Anino at FSU’s Public Interest Law Center. “Our project was clemency for Timothy Kane,” she said.
Kane, who had been an honor student, began making bad choices in 1992 after his parents, a waitress and a truck driver, divorced. On Super Bowl Sunday, Jan, 26, 1992, he left his Pasco County home, after telling his mother he was going to spend the night with 17-year old Bobby Garner.
He and Garner followed 19-year old Alvin Morton on their bicycles to an undisclosed location. Kane was told they were going to burglarize an empty house to obtain money for Morton to retrieve his driver’s license. Kane later said he went along because he was afraid to be called “sissy.”
When the trio arrived at a house located down a deserted road, Morton kicked in the door. The house was occupied by 75-year old Madeline Weisser and her 55-year old son John Bowers. Kane begged to leave but Morton pointed a shotgun at him and ordered him to stay.
Morton killed Bowers with the sawed-off shotgun while Garner stabbed Weisser to death, nearly decapitating her. Morton took Bower’s finger as a trophy.
Kane cowered behind a table and stared out the window. The three were arrested the next morning at Morton’s home.
During his 1994 trial, Kane took the stand and told the jury that he believed the house was empty, that he saw the shotgun but didn't think it was loaded, and that he heard Morton talking about murder but didn't think he was serious.
Kane was charged as an adult. His defense attorney, now deceased, told colleagues at the time he would not plea bargain because he intended to have his client declared not guilty. The plan backfired.
Morton was sentenced to death, Garner given life in prison with possibility of parole after 50 years, and Kane sentenced to life with possible parole after 25 years.
Kane has never received a disciplinary report in his 24 years of incarceration. He completed his GED, works for the prison chaplain and speaks to teens who visit the prison as part of a “scared straight” program.
Duncan said the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act, which she helped draft, never passed the Florida Legislature but the existing law changed through case law as courts began to view things differently.
New research on brain science demonstrated the part of the brain that helps people make decisions based on logic, not emotion, isn't fully developed until the early or even mid 20s. Teenagers, in contrast to adults, researchers say, are more susceptible to peer pressure and less able to consider consequences. They often behave impulsively.
In 2005, based in part on this science, the Supreme Court decided juveniles can't be sentenced to death. They're less than fully developed so they're also less than fully culpable.
Over the years, judges and prosecutors involved in the Kane case have come forward recommending he be released. Duncan, who met with Kane several times, described him as “a well spoken, intelligent respectful man.”
“We are not asking for no punishment. He was over processed, for lack of a better word. This was his one and only crime. He never fired or even held a gun,” Duncan said.
In a 2008 interview, Duncan, a former corrections officer turned Florida State University law student, told an interviewer that Kane reminded her of her own son who was then 14. Speaking of minors sentenced to life imprisonment she said, “Some of them have not even been on a first date or written their 10th-grade theme paper. It’s just crazy to me that we can take such people and lock them up and literally warehouse them.”
Thanks to a Sept. 28 parole hearing, Kane will be released within the next six months partly due to work Duncan helped pioneer. He plans to live and work with his sister after his release and a Sarasota church has pledged to support him as he learns to navigate society. He has never driven a car; had a bank account; used a cell phone or sent an e-mail. He's never even seen the Internet. He's never had a relationship with a woman.
“When I heard the news about board’s decision I was thankful and very happy for Tim. Thankful that people are beginning to embrace the fact that our children are different and deserve unique individualized treatment, mercy and the opportunity for a second chance,” Duncan told interviewers
Duncan said the Public Interest Law Center continues to work on behalf of other prisoners in situations similar to Kane..
While the legal services are usually pro bono, funds are still needed for things like travel, lodging, copying documents and other related defense-related expenses. Those wishing to support their work can give by mail by contacting Becky Shepherd, Director of Alumni Affairs and Annual Fund, College of Law, (850) 644-0231 or the FSU Foundation, 2010 Levy Avenue, P.O. Box 3062739, Tallahassee, FL 32306-2739 or can give online at https://one.fsu.edu/foundation/donate/give-online.
It is important for donors to earmark the funds to the Children In Prison Project, Public Interest Law Center.
To find out more about the Public Interest Law Center visit http://www.law.fsu.edu/academics/clinical-programs/public-interest-law-center
Duncan continues to work in juvenile law and resentencing. She said she is hired by the families of the young offenders or by Baylor University which offers grants for indigent juveniles sentenced for life imprisonment while legally underrepresented.