WILTON MANORS — The jury in the retrial of Peter Avsenew will not hear about the racist and homophobic views he expressed in a letter to Broward Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes after he was convicted of murder in 2017 but before he was sentenced a year later, a different judge ruled Thursday.
At least, not yet.
Broward Circuit Judge Martin Fein, who is overseeing the retrial, said Thursday that the contents of the letter might be relevant because they contain anti-gay statements, and the victims in the case, Kevin Powell and Stephen Adams, were gay. But the letter also contains statements that appear to have nothing to do with the case, including Avsenew’s belief that “it is my duty as a white man to cull the weak and timid from existence … I must secure an existence for white people and a future for white children.”
Those March 2018 comments, defense lawyer Gabe Ermine said Thursday, were an “over-the-top” effort to goad the previous judge on the case, a Black woman, into sentencing the defendant to death, which she did that November. Both murder victims were white.
Prosecutor Stephen Zaccor argued that the homophobic comments in Avsenew’s letter were directly related to the crime he’s accused of committing. At his first trial in 2017, Avsenew was accused of shooting the victims after befriending them and staying in their Wilton Manors home. “Homosexuals are a disease to mankind and must be put down,” he wrote. “These weren’t the first and won’t be the last.”
No evidence that Avsenew committed other murders has been presented in court, but his comments about gay men deserving to die were an admission of guilt, Zaccor said. The prosecutor offered to work with the defense to parse the letter so that jurors would not hear the irrelevant, racist comments.
But Ermine argued that it would be impossible for him to explain the comments to the jury without explaining their context — Avsenew was convicted and awaiting sentencing when he wrote the letter, Ermine said, and he probably would not have written it otherwise. The new jury is not supposed to know that Avsenew had been previously tried and sentenced to death.
Judge Fein did not rule out the possibility of allowing prosecutors to refer to the letter’s contents if the jury finds Avsenew guilty and proceeds to the penalty phase, during which they will determine whether to recommend a sentence of death or life in prison.
Avsenew was granted a new trial in January, with the Florida Supreme Court finding prosecutors should not have been allowed to present his mother’s recorded testimony to the jury. The testimony has been barred from the retrial.
Rafael Olmeda may be reached at email@example.com. Call or text him at 954-356-4457. Follow him on Twitter @rolmeda.