The case of William Kelley, on Florida’s death row for the 1966 contract killing of a wealthy Florida orange grower, involves some of American criminal justice’s top lawyers and reads like a second-rate novel. If it weren’t true, no one would ever believe a case could work out this way.
Kelley was convicted of killing Charles von Maxcy for $20,000 on behalf of a reputed Boston mobster named John Sweet, who was involved in an affair with Maxcy’s wife, Irene. Over the years, there were a number of trials for Maxcy’s murder, but Kelley is the only person against whom the murder charges stuck. Irene Maxcy was granted immunity from prosecution shortly after her affair with Sweet went sour and Sweet himself managed to finagle a sweet deal himself in return for his testimony against Kelley.
Here’s how Kelley ended up on death row while everyone else connected to the crime managed to skate away.
William Kelley In 1966, the 23-year-old Sweet and Irene Maxcy were lovers who wanted to get her husband out of the way so they could enjoy the largess of his estate. Sweet was connected with the Boston mob and with Irene’s agreement, promised a couple of gunmen $5,000 in advance and another $15,000 after the job was done.
On October 1, 1966, Sweet went to Daytona, Florida to meet Andrew von Etter, who was to do the killing, along with a partner. The next day von Etter called Sweet to tell him the partner, William Kelley, had arrived. On October 3rd, Sweet drove von Etter and Kelley to the estate. The killers showed Sweet the weapons they would use, knives and a revolver, which they kept in a satchel. After Sweet drove back to Sebring, Florida, Charles von Maxcy was murdered that day.
After the killing, Kelley reportedly told Sweet, “boy, [Maxcy] was a powerful guy. I stabbed him three or four times and he kept coming after us, so I had to shoot him in the head.”
Either the gunmen or Sweet himself got greedy, but regardless, Sweet started pressuring Irene for more money. When his pressure turned to threats toward her and her 5-year-old daughter, Irene went to police and in return for immunity, implicated Sweet in the murder-for-hire scheme.
Sweet was arrested in 1967, and charged with first degree murder. Police could not charge von Etter and Kelley, as prosecutors felt they had insufficient evidence against them.
Irene Maxcy was the star witness for the prosecution in Sweet’s trial.
“Her testimony was erratic and difficult as she denied, even under the protection of immunity, that she wanted to kill her husband,” the U.S. District Court wrote in Kelley’s habeas claim. “She testified it was entirely Sweet’s idea. She claimed to have witnessed many of the phone calls Sweet had made in arranging the murder, and she related many of the details about which Sweet had kept her informed, including the murder itself. She further testified that she gave Sweet more than $35,000 to help pay for the murder, and that Sweet had wanted another $75,000.
Sweet, testifying on his own behalf, denied any involvement in the crime.
Sweet also launched a vitriolic character assault on Irene, accusing her of partaking in a host of deviant sex acts, claiming that she had a sexual affair with a young boy, engaged in sex with a friend of Sweet’s, and with a dog, Sweet bought for her.
The trial ended in a hung jury.
In 1968, Sweet was tried a second time. Irene Maxcy testified against him again, and, again, Sweet denied any involvement in the murder. This time, however, Sweet was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
However, evidentiary irregularities resulted in the state courts tossing Sweet’s conviction. The state opted not to try him a third time. On November 16, 1971, the circuit judge who had presided over Sweet ’s case found that he had “no course other than to grant the motion.” Commending the efforts of the prosecution, the judge–in his own words–”reluctantly” ordered that Sweet “stand[s] discharged from further prosecution . . . .”
Irene Maxcy was convicted of perjury in 1971 in connection with her testimony in the Sweet trial in which she claimed a state investigator in the case was having an affair with her and “wanted to see Sweet put away.” She was sentenced to life imprisonment, but served only four and one-half years before being released on parole.
In April of 1976, the state attorney petitioned the circuit court to enter an order authorizing the clerk of the court to destroy certain physical evidence held for Sweet’s prosecution. The court granted that petition, and several articles of evidence, including a bullet, a bloody bed sheet, and a shred from the victim’s shirt, were destroyed.
“Sweet had gotten away with murder, but his role in the prosecutor’s pursuit of the matter had not ended,” the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. “As the district court observed, after his conviction was reversed,
John Sweet wasted little time in matriculating back into the underworld. By 1981, Sweet was facing charges in Massachusetts of prostitution, narcotics distribution, arson, bribery, counterfeiting, loan sharking, and hijacking, among other things. With authorities closing in on him, Sweet went to them first. His plan was to win immunity in exchange for information he had on the murder of Charles von Maxcy. William Kelley was the target, as Sweet implicated him as one of the murderers. The Massachusetts authorities brought Sweet to Florida where Sweet gave authorities there his confession. The next day Sweet was awarded immunity in Massachusetts.
William H. Kelley was arrested on June 16, 1983, roughly seventeen years after Maxcy’s murder. By that time, Walter Bennett, who was Sweet’s contact for the murder contract, and Andrew von Etter, who was Kelley’s supposed partner in the killing, were both dead. Irene Maxcy, of course, had immunity for her role in the murder.
Three special agents of the FBI apprehended Kelley at a motel in Tampa, Florida. They had received a tip that a guest of the motel met Kelley’s description. When they informed Kelley of his indictment for the Maxcy murder, Kelley made statements indicating knowledge of the crime and suggested that the State would never be able to obtain a conviction. These statements eventually became a subject of dispute at Kelley’s trial.
On December 7, 1983, Kunstler and Mason, a New York law firm, was hired to serve as Kelley’s primary counsel. William Kunstler and Mark Gombiner, partners of the firm, moved the court on December 8 for leave to appear.
Prior to trial, Kelley’s defense team also included a paralegal named Harvey Brower, a disbarred Massachusetts lawyer, to serve as an investigator.
Kelley’s trial began in January of 1984. By that time, Brower had disappeared. As the federal district court later observed, “Kunstler characterized Brower as a thief who ‘absconded’ with fees without ever performing his investigatory duties.”
Kunstler took primary responsibility for many of the most important trial tasks, including the cross-examination of the state’s star witness, John Sweet. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, and on January 30, the court declared a mistrial.
Kelley’s second trial commenced on March 27.
One of the State’s other key witnesses was Abe Namia, a private investigator hired by Sweet’s defense team when Sweet was being prosecuted. Namia’s testimony corroborated Sweet’s and was admitted to rebut the inference that Sweet recently fabricated his version of the story. Sweet, according to Namia, had informed Namia that prior to the murder certain unidentified assassins had twice travelled to Florida to kill Maxcy.
In the course of investigating the Maxcy murder, the Highlands County Sheriff received a “Latent Fingerprint Report,” dated September 1, 1967, from the Florida Sheriffs Bureau. The report reflects that 48 latent finger and palm print lifts were taken from Maxcy’s house and car. The report further states that the lifts were compared against the finger and palm prints of 81 persons, including Kelley, and that none of the lifts positively matched Kelley’s prints. This report was not supplied to defense counsel.
On March 30, the jury found Kelley guilty of first degree murder. At the end of the sentencing phase of the trial, a majority of the jury recommended that he receive the death penalty. On April 2, consistent with the jury’s recommendation, the court sentenced Kelley to death.
The conviction was upheld through the state appellate process.
As the case went into the federal system, new lawyers for Kelley obtained documents undermining some of the state’s evidence and revealing a more direct tie between Sweet’s immunity deal and the von Maxcy case. They asserted a Brady violation – a violation of the 1963 court precedent Brady v. Maryland, which bars prosecutors from withholding exculpatory evidence from defendants at trial.
In 2002, after holding evidentiary hearings in Massachusetts and Florida, the U.S. District Court overturned the conviction and sentence based on the Brady claim and on an allegation of ineffective assistance of counsel.
However, the Court of Appeals found that the district court abused its discretion and reinstated the conviction and sentence.
The appeals panel determined that even without the “new evidence,” Sweet’s credibility had already been impeached at trial and the new evidence would not have changed the outcome of the trial.
In June 2005, the United States Supreme Court opted not to grant certiorari, despite amicus briefs from such notables as Kenneth Starr and Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe.