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Death Row lawyers and inmates challenge new fast-track death penalty law

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Attorneys representing Death Row inmates have filed a challenge to a law aimed at speeding up executions, saying the “Timely Justice Act” unconstitutionally usurps the Supreme Court’s powers and violates convicts’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.

The lawsuit is led by two lawyers – Capital Collateral Regional Counsel South Neal Dupree and Capital Collateral Regional Counsel Middle Bill Jennings – who head the state agencies that represent Death Row inmates in post-conviction proceedings. Dozens of other lawyers and more than 150 inmates awaiting execution joined the lawsuit against Attorney General Pam Bondi and the state of Florida filed with the Supreme Court Wednesday afternoon.

The lawyers filed the lawsuit less than two weeks after Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law.

The new law, which goes into effect on July 1, requires the Florida Supreme Court to certify to the governor when a Death Row inmate’s appeals have been exhausted. Under the new law, the governor will have 30 days to sign a death warrant once the capital clemency process is complete.

The lawyers have asked the Court to issue an emergency injunction blocking the law from going into effect.

“The Act creates a rushed process for issuance of a flood of death warrants that will inundate the courts and abruptly cut off this Court’s exercise of judicial review in capital cases. If not addressed prior to its operation in practice, the process will have the unconstitutional and irreversible result of individuals being executed under a legislatively-determined judicial procedure in which violations of their constitutional rights go unresolved. Further, Florida history shows that diminished process can have tragic and irreversible consequences,” the lawyers wrote in the 89-page filing.

The court filing includes a lengthy examination of both the Court’s and the legislature’s efforts over the past 30 years to come up with a more expedited but fair death penalty process “to balance the concerns of fairness and justice with the need for finality” in death penalty cases.

That process “cannot and should not be displaced by a lawmaking process based on political, rather than constitutional and equitable, concerns,” wrote Dupree and Jennings, joined by Martin McClain, who has represented numerous Death Row inmates, included some who have been exonerated.

Since signing the bill, Scott’s office has launched a public relations campaign disputing reports that the new law speeds up executions and insisting instead that the law “makes technical amendments to current law and provides clarity and transparency to legal proceedings.”

According to Scott’s office, 13 Death Row inmates would fit the criteria under the new law to have a death warrant signed.

But in the court filings, lawyers for the condemned argued that the Legislature’s new scheme to limit post-conviction appeals lacks an understanding of the complexities of the process and imposes restrictions on federal appeals.

The Legislature “has made profoundly critical decisions determining what judicial vehicles are available to capital defendants prior to the State taking the ultimate punitive act of terminating their lives, yet it seems the Legislature does not have an understanding of those vehicles and their names. Unless, that is, we must presume that the Legislature intended to cut off U.S. Supreme Court review of Florida death cases, which would present concerns of federalism, constitutionality, and fairness beyond those addressed herein,” the lawyers wrote.

The lawsuit also accuses the law of violating the separation of powers between the branches of government because it gives the governor the authority to oversee whether the Clerk of the Supreme Court complies with the 30-day requirement to notify the governor once appeals have been completed and because it takes away some of the court’s rulemaking authority by imposing time limits on the production of public records in post-conviction cases.

And the new law also fails to take into account that some appeals, including whether an inmate is insane cannot be made until after a warrant is issued, the Death Row lawyers argued.

The law would also give unequal treatment to convicts whose cases were processed before the new act went into effect, the lawyers wrote.

Scott signs expedited death penalty, 58 other bills into law

Friday, June 14th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Rejecting nearly 15,000 pleas for a veto, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a measure speeding up executions, saying it includes protections for Death Row convicts and “does not increase the risk of execution of persons who did not commit murder.”

Scott signed the “Timely Justice Act” along with 58 other bills and vetoed two others, including a measure that would have made voters’ e-mail addresses secret, before heading to a trade mission to France on Friday.

Scott also signed into law a business-backed bill that would block local governments from enacting mandatory sick time measures.

Read Scott’s message regarding the death penalty measure here and the sick-leave pay bill here.

Expedited death penalty process on its way to Gov. Scott

Monday, April 29th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Death Row inmates would get executed faster under a measure on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The Senate approved the bill (HB 7083) with a 28-10 vote this afternoon despite the objections of some Democrats who said the fast-tracked process is risky.

The “Timely Justice Act,” approved by the House last week, creates shorter time frames for death penalty appeals and take away the governor’s discretion about when to order an execution.

If Scott signs the bill or allows it to become law without his approval, 13 Death Row inmates would fit its criteria, meaning the governor who has signed nine death warrants in the 29 months since he took office would have to order 13 executions within six months.

Sen. Joe Negron, the bill’s sponsor, said the changes are necessary to bring justice to victims. The average length of time between arrest and execution in Florida is 20 years, and 10 Death Row inmates have been awaiting execution for more than three decades, Negron said before the vote.

The delay makes “a mockery of the court system,” Negron, R-Stuart, said. Court and jury decisions “at some point…needs to be carried out.”

But Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, argued that speeding up the process could result in the execution of innocent people.

Twenty-four Florida Death Row inmates have been exonerated, the most of any state in the nation.

“Once the execution is completed, it’s over. There’s no going back,” Sachs, a former prosecutor, argued. “I don’t see the reason for the swiftness especially with DNA evidence that can exonerate.”

Florida is the only state in the nation that allows a simple majority of the jury on capital cases. Critics of the bill had tried to change it to require a 10-2 majority of the jury as Alabama requires. All other states with the death penalty require unanimous jury decisions.

Scott issues temporary stay of execution for killer to determine if he is insane

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

From The Associated Press:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Rick Scott is asking a panel of psychiatrists to determine whether a convicted murderer is insane.

Scott on Wednesday agreed to temporarily stay the pending execution of John Errol Ferguson in order to let doctors decide whether or not he understands the death penalty and why he is about to be executed.

The governor in an executive order called for the examination to take place on Oct. 1. Scott says if Ferguson is competent he will proceed with the already-scheduled execution on Oct. 16.

Sixty-four-year-old Ferguson was convicted of murdering six people execution-style in a drug-related crime. Ferguson was also convicted for the murders of two Hialeah teenagers.

Ferguson’s attorneys say that he has long exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia and has been plagued by hallucinations and delusions.

Scott sets execution for Oba Chandler

Monday, October 10th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant- his second since taking office in January – for Oba Chandler, convicted of murdering a mother and her two daughters more than two decades ago.

Scott ordered Chandler to be put to death on Nov. 15. The death warrant comes less than two weeks after convicted cop killer Manuel Valles was executed by lethal injection using Florida’s contested new drug protocol.

Chandler, 65, has been on Death Row for nearly 17 years after being convicted of killing 36-year-old Joan Rogers and her daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 11, Ohio tourists on vacation in Tampa.

The bodies of the three women were found tied and weighted in Tampa Bay. All three were naked from the waist down, tied up and weighted down from the neck by a cinder block. Medical examiners determined all three women died from asphyxiation from being strangled by the ropes or by drowning. The autopsies revealed the women were alive when Chandler threw them overboard from a boat.

Chandler is one of more than two dozen of the 395 inmates on Death Row inmates considered “death warrant-ready,” meaning their federal and state appeals have run out.

Supreme Court rejects latest Valle lethal injection appeal

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court rejected yet another appeal by Manuel Valle, slated to be executed tomorrow at 4 p.m.

Tuesday’s ruling is the third appeal by Valle’s lawyers rejected by courts this summer. His execution by lethal injection has twice been put on hold, first by the Florida Supreme Court and later by federal judges in Atlanta.

Valle’s lawyers have questioned the state’s use of a new drug in the lethal injection “cocktail.” The Department of Corrections has substituted the compound sodium pentobarbital for the first of the three-drug lethal injection protocol, a change forced by a manufacturer’s discontinuing of the drug formerly used.

British neurologist David Nicholl, who has ties to pentobarbital’s manufacturer Lundbeck Inc., filed the latest appeal with the state’s highest court, arguing that the use of the drug – also known as Nembutal – for executions violates the federal Controlled Substances Act which prohibits its dispensation except for legitimate medical purposes. The Court disagreed.

Since his conviction for the 1978 killing of Coral Gables police officer Louis Pena, Valle has been sentenced to death and re-sentenced three times in legal wrangling that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his death penalty in 1987. Courts later reaffirmed his death penalty conviction.

Valle has another appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. His is the first – and only – death warrant signed by Gov. Rick Scott since he assumed office in January.

Federal court postpones Manuel Valle execution

Friday, September 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

A federal court in Atlanta has postponed the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle until at least Thursday.

It’s the second time since Gov. Rick Scott signed Valle’s death warrant – the only one Scott has signed since taking office in January – earlier this year that his execution has been stayed.

Valle, who has spent more than three decades on Death Row, was slated to be put to death by lethal injection on Tuesday.

The Florida Supreme Court in July put his execution, originally set for Aug. 2, on hold after his lawyers raised objections to the state’s use of a new drug as part of the lethal injection formula. Department of Corrections officials substituted pentobarbital for a drug no longer manufactured as the first of the three-drug lethal injection “cocktail.”

Since his conviction for the 1978 killing of Coral Gables police officer Louis Pena, Valle has been sentenced to death and re-sentenced three times in legal wrangling that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his death penalty in 1987. Courts later reaffirmed his death penalty conviction.

On Aug. 23, the Florida Supreme Court On Tuesday, the court approved the Department of Corrections’ new drug protocol, saying it did not pose a substantial risk of harm to the inmate.

Valle’s lawyers are also pursuing other appeals, including with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Manuel Valle execution set for Sept. 6

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida officials are scheduled to put Manuel Valle to death on Sept. 6 at 6 p.m. after the Florida Supreme Court yesterday approved the state’s new lethal injection drug cocktail.

Valle has spent more than three decades on Death Row and has avoided execution through a series of appeals, reversals and other legal wranglings that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his death penalty. In all, courts have re-sentenced Valle to death three times.

Valle, who was born in Cuba, was sentenced to death for the 1978 murder of a Coral Gables police officer, Louis Pena. Valle, now 61, shot Pena after the police officer pulled him over on a routine traffic stop.

The state’s highest court put the execution, originally ordered by Gov. Rick Scott for Aug. 2, back on track on Tuesday with an order approving the state’s new lethal injection drug protocol.

The court in July halted the execution and ordered a hearing on the Department of Corrections’ new drug – pentobarbital – substituted for a drug no longer manufactured and used as the first of the three-drug lethal injection “cocktail.”

On Tuesday, the court approved the new protocol, saying it did not pose a substantial risk of harm to the inmate. Valle’s lawyers argued that pentobarbital, also known as Nebutal, may not render him unconscious, thus subjecting him to undue pain induced by the following drugs used in the procedure.

But the Supreme Court agreed with three other federal courts who also found no credible evidence that administering the drug in the method proscribed – 10 times the dosage required for sedation – would not render Valle unconscious. Pentobarbital is also used in animal euthanasia and assisted suicide, but its manufacturer has asked prison officials as well as Scott not to use it to kill prisoners.

Lawyers for Valle are still pursuing a challenge against lethal injection in federal court and other appeals, including with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court signs off on new lethal injection drug; execution a go

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court approved a new lethal injection drug and removed a stay on the execution of cop-killer Manuel Valle.

The court unanimously ruled that the use of the new drug – pentobarbital – as part of the three-drug lethal injection “cocktail” does not inflict undue pain, ignoring the objections of Valle’s lawyers.

A divided Supreme Court last month ordered a Miami judge to hold a hearing on the new drug, an anesthetic Department of Corrections officials decided in June to replace sodium thiopental. Sodium thiopental’s manufacturer stopped making the drug early this year, leaving corrections officials in states like Florida scrambling to find a substitute.

A unanimous court agreed Tuesday with Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan’s ruling earlier this month that the drug does not raise a substantial risk of harm. Three federal courts have also signed off on the drug. Florida’s protocol requires a dosage of the drug – also used in animal euthanasia and assisted suicide – 10 times the dosage used for sedation.

Lawyers for Valle, who has spent 33 years on Death Row, argued that using pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, as an anesthetic may not render him unconscious, thus subjecting him to undue pain induced by the following drugs used in the lethal injection procedure.

The Danish manufacturer of the drug, Lundbeck Inc., twice pleaded with Gov. Rick Scott not to use the drug, saying it “contradicts everything we are in business to do.”

Scott signed a death warrant for Valle – his only since taking office in January – late in May.

Miami judge signs off on Florida’s new lethal injection drug

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011 by Dara Kam

A Miami judge this morning ruled that Florida corrections officials can use a new drug as part of the lethal injection “cocktail,” setting the stage for a Supreme Court show-down later this month.

The Florida Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle, originally slated for Monday, until a hearing was held on the use of the drug pentobarbital. Florida Department of Corrections officials switched to the drug in a new lethal injection protocol released in June after the manufacturer of the old drug, sodium thiopental. The Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, twice asked Gov. Rick Scott not to use the drug for lethal injections and has stopped selling it to distributors who resell it for that use.

Valle’s lawyers argued that the drug had not been tested and that its use may cause prisoners pain during executions in violation of the cruel or unusual punishment threshold set by a previous U.S. Supreme Court opinion known as “Baze.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jacqueline Hogan Scola agreed with three federal courts that already ruled the drug does not raise a substantial risk of harm.

The “usage of pentobarbital does not create an objectively unreasonable risk of suffering,” Scola wrote in her order.

Briefs from Attorney General Pam Bondi, who went to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get the execution back on, and Valle’s lawyers are due to the Florida Supreme Court by Aug. 19, and the court has slated oral arguments for Aug. 24 if necessary.

Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for Valle – his only since taking office in January – late in May. The Supreme Court rescheduled Valle’s execution for Sept. 2.

Danish manufacturer of lethal injection drug twice asked Scott not to use it to kill prisoners

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Danish manufacturer of the controversial drug now being used to execute prisoners pleaded with Gov. Rick Scott twice to abandon its use, saying it “contradicts everything we are in business to do.”

Staffan Schüberg, president of Lundbeck Inc., wrote to Scott twice before the first-term governor signed his first death warrant ordering Manuel Valle to be executed on Aug. 2.

“We are adamantly opposed to the use of Nembutal to execute prisoners because it contradicts everything we are in business to do – provide therapies that improve people’s lives,” Schüberg wrote to Scott on May 16.

On Monday, the Florida Supreme Court stayed the execution of Manuel Valle until Sept. 1 and ordered a hearing on the new protocol. Attorney General Pam Bondi yesterday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the stay.

The evidentiary hearing on the drug is scheduled for tomorrow morning in Miami.

(more…)

Bondi asks U.S. Supreme Court to re-order execution

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Attorney General Pam Bondi has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to override the Florida Supreme Court’s stay on the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle.

Valle’s death warrant, the first and only signed by Gov. Rick Scott since taking office in January, set his execution by lethal injection for Aug. 2. But the Florida Supreme Court yesterday put the execution off for a month until a hearing on a controversial new drug is held.

In a 4-3 ruling, the divided Florida high court ordered a Miami judge to hold a hearing on the new drug, pentobarbital sodium, an anesthetic Department of Corrections officials decided in June to replace sodium thiopental. Sodium thiopental’s manufacturer stopped making the drug early this year, leaving corrections officials in states like Florida scrambling to find a substitute.

But Lundbeck Inc., the Danish manufacturer of pentobarbital, recently announced that the drug is untested and unsafe for use in lethal injections. Lundbeck stopped selling the drug to distributors who intended to resell it for use in executions.

In her 12-page filing Tuesday, Bondi argued that the Florida justices “improperly granted the stay” because Valle’s lawyers failed to demonstrate that he would be subjected to a “substantial risk of harm,” the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in determining cruel or unusual punishment in a case called Baze v. Rees, known as “Baze.”

“In Baze, a plurality of this Court held that an inmate was required to show that the protocol created a ‘substantial risk of serious harm’ that was ‘objectively intolerable’ to demonstrate that a lethal injection protocol was unconstitutional,’” Bondi’s motion said. “It noted that the mere fact that an execution method ‘may result in pain, either by accident or as an inescapable consequence of death’ did not meet this standard.”

Bondi also disputed the testimony of Valle’s expert witness, pediatric anesthesiologist David Waisel. A lower court had rejected Waisel’s testimony but the state Supreme Court ordered that it be taken into consideration in the hearing on the new drug. Part of Waisel’s testimony included a description of what may have been a botched execution in Georgia using pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal.

“Since the claim has already been rejected in Georgia and Florida’s protocol contains similar provisions for a consciousness
check and not continuing the protocol until an inmate is unconscious (as noted in Justice Cannady’s dissent in the Florida
Supreme Court), the Florida Supreme Court erred in finding that this assertion was sufficient to grant a stay. The stay should be vacated,” Bondi wrote.

Gov. Rick Scott on public records, the death penalty and state parks

Friday, July 1st, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott defended his administration’s public records policy to a roomful of newspaper executives at the Florida Press Association and Florida Society of Newspaper Editors annual meeting in St. Petersburg.

Scott has come under fire from the media for charging for more for public records than his predecessor, Charlie Crist, who made a habit of giving away most documents for free. Scott is charging the maximum amount allowed under Florida’s broad Sunshine Law, including costs for his legal staff to scrub the documents of private information.

The number of requests “has skyrocketed” since Scott took office in January, he said.

“Part of my job is to make sure we don’t waste taxpayers money. It costs us money to do it. We pass that cost on. It’s the right thing to do,” Scott said in a brief question-and-answer period.

Scott said he plans to put more records on the internet, but did not elaborate. His office has already put online records his staff has generated – including databases of state employees’ salaries and state workers with pensions worth at least $100,000.

Dozens of demonstrators protesting the governor’s economic agenda shouted “Pink Slip Rick” across the street from the waterfront Renaissance Vinoy Hotel as Scott spoke.

After his remarks, Scott fielded a few questions from reporters.

(more…)

Florida Supreme Court nixes cop killer execution because of shoddy prosecution

Thursday, January 14th, 2010 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court today threw out the death sentence of convicted cop killer Paul Beasley Johnson because “the record here is so rife with evidence of previously undisclosed prosecutorial misconduct that we have no choice but to grant relief.”

In October, Gov. Charlie Crist ordered Johnson to be put to death by lethal injection in November.

The high court stayed the execution and heard oral arguments on the case in which Johnson was convicted of going on a drug-induced killing spree in Polk County in 1981. Johnson was convicted of murdering three men, including a Polk County Sheriff’s deputy.

In its ruling today, the court found that prosecutors intentionally got a jailhouse informer to get information from Johnson, take notes and give the notes to investigators. Prosecutors then lied about their role in soliciting the information at Johnson’s trial in 1981.

At a later trial in 1988, a different prosecutor used the same testimony that helped persuade the jury to hand down a 7-5 vote in favor of the death penalty, the court ruled today.

Johnson’s death sentence is now thrown out and he will have to be resentenced.

The court blamed Hardy Pickard, the original prosecutor, for today’s ruling.

“His misconduct tainted the State‘s case at every stage of the proceedings and irremediably compromised the integrity of the entire 1988 penalty phase proceeding. This is not a case of overzealous advocacy, but rather a case of deliberately misleading both the trial court and this Court. It must be emphasized that in our American legal system there is no room for such misconduct, no matter how disturbing a crime may be or how unsympathetic a defendant is. The same principles of law apply equally to cases that have stirred passionate public outcry as to those that have not,” the ruling reads.

“In our system of justice, ends do not justify means. Rather, experience teaches that the means become the end and that irregular and untruthful arguments lead to unreliable results. Lawlessness by a defendant never justifies lawless conduct at trial…The State must cling to the higher standard even in its dealings with those who do not. Accordingly, we must grant relief,” the opinion concludes.

Justice Ricky Polston dissented and Justices Peggy Quince and Charles Canady recused themselves.

Crist signs death warrant for park ranger killer

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Gov. Charlie Crist signed a death warrant for Martin Grossman, convicted of murdering a Pinellas County wildlife officer in 1984.

089742Grossman is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection on Feb. 16 at 6 p.m.

Grossman was 19 years old when he and a friend went to a wooded area in Pinellas County on Dec. 13, 1984 to shoot a stolen handgun.

Florida Wildlife Officer Margaret Park interrupted them and Grossman pleaded with her not to report him for having the gun and being outside Pasco County, both of which were violations of his probation for burglery.

Grossman struck Park on the back of the head when she tried to radio for help and his accomplice beat her.

Grossman, who was a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than Park, wrestled her gun away from her and shot her in the back of the head.

The Florida Supreme Court issued stays of execution for two other Death Row inmates Crist had ordered to be put to death. Including Grossman, Crist has ordered seven Death Row inmate executions since taking office in 2007.

Those cases are still pending.

Supreme Court halts cop-killer execution

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 by Dara Kam

paul-beasley-johnson-100x1001The Florida Supreme Court has issued a stay in next week’s execution of convicted cop-killer Paul Beasley Johnson.

Johnson, whom Gov. Charlie Crist scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, went on a killing spree 28 years ago after a drug binge.

The Court issued the indefinite stay because of “significant issues raised” in Johnson’s appeal regarding prosecutorial misconduct, the order reads.

Johnson’s lawyers argued in his appeal that his conviction is tainted because a jailhouse witness who testified against him was working secretly for prosecutors, who later denied their connection to the inmate.

The inmate later recanted his testimony and said he was instructed by prosecutors to take notes about what Johnson said, which he did.

Prosecutors later denied that, but Johnson’s lawyers found written notes that showed they were in contact with the inmate and had told him to “keep his ears open and take notes.”

Johnson, 60, was found guilty of the 1981 murders of a cab driver, a good Samaritan who gave Johnson a ride and a deputy in Lakeland.

After getting high on crystal meth and running out of drugs, Johnson robbed and killed cab driver William Evans in Polk County. He then approached Amy Reid and Darrell Beasley in the parking lot of a restaurant and asked them for a ride to a friend’s house. Johnson asked the pair to pull over in a wooded area so that he could go to the bathroom and then shot and killed Beasley. Reid escaped and called the Polk County Sheriff’s office.

Johnson then started a shoot-out with two deputies who responded to Reid’s call. They later found the body of a third deputy, Theron Burnham, in a drainage ditch. Burnham had been shot three times.

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