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Carey Haughwout: Opposing the Death Penalty



Carey Haughwout is an outspoken opponent of Florida’s death penalty. “I firmly believe the courts should say this form of punishment is not right and change the law,” she said. “However, I have seen differences in how the courts rule in death penalty litigation, and it’s encouraging that change is possible.”

As Palm Beach County’s public defender, Haughwout has handled a wide range of cases, and is still in touch with clients she represented decades ago. In recent years, she has specialized in Florida death penalty litigation, including Hurst v. Florida, a 1998 murder case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 after years of trials, sentencing hearings and appeals.

In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court applied the rule in the 2002 Ring v. Arizona case, holding that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find the aggravating factors necessary for imposing the death penalty. In accordance with Florida’s 2013 statute, which updated the state’s capital punishment process, the jury made recommendations but the judge decided the facts. In a concurring opinion in the Hurst case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said he believes that having a single government official impose the death penalty, instead of a jury, violates the Eighth Amendment.

In October, the Florida Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that a death sentence must be issued by a unanimous jury. The court also granted Hurst a new sentencing hearing. Noting that Florida currently has approximately 400 inmates on death row, Haughwout said, “Many of the executions of the past would not have been carried out under today’s laws,” she said. “I am hopeful that trend continues until our society can move past the death penalty as a form of punishment.”

Applying the Law to Change Society

Born in Pennsylvania, Haughwout moved to Martin County in high school. In 1979, she earned a degree in economics and sociology from New College in Sarasota, followed by her juris doctor with high honors from Florida State University College of Law in 1983.

“I initially thought about a career in law enforcement, and then became interested in becoming an attorney to help change society,” she said. “I asked myself some big questions, like whether social attitudes change the law or do the laws change people’s attitudes? Clearly, on issues like segregation and civil rights the legal changes came first.”

In law school, Haughwout also studied the nation’s penal system to see whether the current crime and punishment approach was effective. “I found that the answer was no,” she said. “Prisons are called correctional facilities, but little is done to rehabilitate inmates before release. It was also clear to me that the death penalty did nothing to deter crime and should be abolished.”

Haughwout started her legal career as an associate with a Tallahassee trial firm, building a practice that included criminal defense work. “I saw that many clients would not hire a woman to represent them in court, so I looked at my options and joined the public defender’s office in Tallahassee in 1985.

Two years later, she moved to West Palm Beach with her husband John Tierney and served as an assistant public defender until 1990, gaining experience in handling misdemeanor, felony and capital cases. She then went into private practice with her husband for a decade. On the personal side, she enjoys spending time with her husband and their family dogs, as well as horse riding, sport fishing and traveling.

During the 1990s, Haughwout’s deep commitment to her clients and the Palm Beach County community was recognized several times. Governor Lawton Chiles’ appointed her to the Domestic Violence Clemency Panel from 1995-1998 and she was named to the Special Advisory Committee on Minimum Standards of Competency for Counsel in Capital Cases. She also received the 1994 Legal Aid Society Pro Bono Award for Criminal Law service and the 2001 Pro Bono Homeless Advocacy Award.

Entering the Public Sector

In 2001, Haughwout left her practice and was elected Palm Beach public defender. “I have seen both the private and the public side of criminal defense work,” she said. “There is more flexibility on the non-government side, since you can make decisions in a case more quickly. But a public defender’s office has great trial and appellate lawyers who quickly gain courtroom experience. I’m particularly proud of our younger attorneys who bring in new ideas and help us elevate our defense practice.”

Currently, the West Palm Beach office has about 100 attorneys and an equal number of support staff, including full-time investigators. “Many of our clients don’t understand the benefits of having those resources in place on their behalf,” Haughwout said. “If you’re well off, have the financial resources to hire an experienced private defense lawyer, and if you are poor, the court will appoint someone from our office. But it can be very difficult for our middle-class citizens, who don’t qualify for our legal assistance, to hire a criminal defense lawyer and pay the fees needed to prepare a case. Things can get pretty rough for them.”

While Haughwout is not comfortable with private firms representing indigent clients on a pro bono basis, she does accept offers for private attorneys to sit as second chair in trial cases for their own training and certification. “We appreciate their assistance,” she said. “However, we are ultimately responsible for representing our clients.”

Haughwout said the volume of criminal cases has slowly declined in the past six years. “Maybe at some point, that decrease will lead to adequate funding, because that has never been the case during my 16-year tenure,” she said. “There are just so many demands on our budget every year.”

Too much Criminalization

One reason public defenders’ cases are more demanding is the application of mandatory sentences and the over-criminalization of many issues in Florida, according to Haughwout. Because the penalties for many crimes are steep, her public defenders spend more time digging into their cases in search of the facts.

Like other public defenders and state attorneys, Haughwout sees an unequal application of justice between white and black defendants, as well as between the rich and poor. To take just one example, a poor working-class defendant may not be able to post bond after arrest. “That can lead to the loss of a job and strain relations a spouse and children,” she said. “It also means that judges and jurors see that defendant not as someone accused of a crime but as someone who is already in jail.”

While Haughwout believes the nation has made significant progress toward racial equality in recent decades, there is still a long way to go. “The big problem with our criminal justice system today is a defendant’s prior history, which affects court rulings, jury verdicts and sentencing decisions,” she said. ““Unfortunately, many black defendants have that history because they were subjected to unequal justice at the start. We need to address this issue affirmatively. Even if we were able to achieve a color-blind system of justice today, that would not correct the racial disparities of the past.”

South Florida Legal Guide 2017 Edition 

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