Skip to content
Ex-prosecutor Robert Carney draws scrutiny over disputed murder cases
For five years, Robert Carney, a Vietnam-era Marine, represented the people of Broward County in murder cases, a prosecutor's gravest responsibility. It was his duty to bring killers to account, to seek justice and the truth in cases where the defendant faced life in prison or the ultimate penalty — execution.
A brainy, aggressive prosecutor, Carney became known around the courthouse for his ability to look jurors in the eye and deliver his closing arguments without notes. He was later appointed to a judgeship, a position he announced in August he will retire from at the end of this year.
As Carney, 62, spends his final months in judicial robes, though, hard questions have arisen about his role in four murder cases from the 1980s.
Those cases were thrown out on appeal, disproved by DNA evidence or have become marred by serious doubt that justice was truly done.
"The public should absolutely be concerned any time you have one person involved in a single wrongful conviction," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, a Tallahassee-based organization that investigates claims of innocence.
"When someone has been involved with four wrongful convictions, it is something that deserves further scrutiny," Miller said.
As a homicide prosecutor, Carney played a major part in three Broward murder cases — against John Purvis, Anthony Caravella and Christopher Clugston — that were thrown out by appeals courts or in which the validity of the convictions has been greatly undermined. He also played a lesser role in one of Florida's most notorious wrongful convictions, that of Frank Lee Smith.
Carney declined to be interviewed by the Sun Sentinel in person or by phone for this story, but agreed to make some comments by e-mail. He declined to discuss details of the cases.
"It is easy to sit as a Monday morning quarterback and judge from a perspective 25 years later with information unknown at the time of prosecution," Carney wrote.
Two of the cases involve unconnected murders committed days apart in November 1983, in Miramar and Fort Lauderdale. Both were assigned to Carney, who won swift convictions of Purvis and Caravella.
One of those long-ago convictions is now back in the news. Caravella was released from prison Sept. 10 after DNA tests cast doubt on his guilt. More testing is being done that could lead to his exoneration.
Both prosecutions were built on the shaky foundations of incriminating confessions. Purvis was schizophrenic, with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old. Caravella was 15 and had an IQ of 67. In both instances, Carney sought the death penalty but jurors voted for life in prison.
Questions have arisen in the two cases about whether Carney should have turned over evidence to the defense that might have set off alarms about the reliability of the confessions and the strength of the state's case.
Purvis' conviction took nearly 10 years to fall apart; Caravella's may be unraveling 26 years later.
Carney said two juries were convinced of both men's guilt.
"Twelve people unanimously, in both cases attributable to me, found there was no reasonable doubt. That is how the system works," Carney wrote. "The 'new' evidence came to light long after trial and could not have been reasonably known before trial. In Caravella, the [DNA] science was not available in 1983," he wrote.
Prosecutors play a key role in the justice system, Carney said, but are not the only players. Judges monitored his conduct; each accused man had an attorney; juries indicted and later convicted both defendants; and appeals courts initially upheld the convictions, he said.
"Yet in spite of these safeguards, the system is not perfect and, on occasion, there is a bad result," Carney wrote. "When it happens it is a stark reminder to all of us of the gravity of what we do. If an innocent person serves time for a crime he or she did not commit, this is a terrible thing and is felt deeply by all who are involved in the process."
Some of the defense attorneys involved in the four murder cases said that they lay more of the blame for what has happened on police — who initially targeted the suspects and interrogated them — than on Carney.
Carolyn McCann, the prosecutor who is handling the Caravella appeal and is familiar with some of the other cases, said Carney is an honorable person.
Broward prosecutors have worked to correct any issues in cases he handled, as well as others, as soon as problems became known, she said.
"I don't believe any prosecutor, including Rob Carney, would ever want to convict an innocent person," McCann said. If Caravella is exonerated, Steven Drizin, a law professor with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, said there should be an independent investigation of every aspect of the case.
"It's way too early to focus blame on a single [person in the justice system]," Drizin said. "Often these cases are a total system meltdown beginning with the police, moving on to the prosecutor and defense attorney and ultimately to the judiciary and the jury."
Drizin added: "What is striking to me is we're talking about a death penalty case against a 15-year-old. You'd think every effort would have been made to ensure it was being done right."
Carney was a Broward prosecutor for nine years and has spent 24 years on the bench. Once dubbed "the jumping judge" because of his love of sky diving, he is regarded as intelligent and organized. He was known as one of the county's top prosecutors, tough but persuasive, and with evident ambitions to earn a black robe. His record as a prosecutor is still being assessed.
Ed McGee, who was a prosecutor with Carney in the 1970s, later defended a homicide case Carney prosecuted, and has represented clients before him as a judge. He said Carney is a "straight shooter" and "takes his job very seriously and does it very, very, very well."
Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
Paula McMahon can be reached at pmcmahon@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4533.
Anthony Caravella Convicted of: Rape and first-degree murder Time served: Close to 26 years Date released:Sept. 10
John Purvis Convicted of: Rape and first-degree murder; second-degree murder Time served: 9 years Date released:1993
Christopher Clugston Convicted of: First-degree murder Time served: 11 yearsDate released:1994
Frank Lee Smith Convicted of: Rape and first-degree murder Time served: 15 years Date released:Died of cancer in 2000, while still on Death Row