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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.

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 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.

High Court postpones August execution, orders hearing on new drug

Monday, July 25th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court has stayed the execution of convicted cop killer Manuel Valle for nearly one month and ordered a hearing on a new lethal injection drug before it can be used.

Valle’s was the first death warrant – and only – signed by Gov. Rick Scott since taking office in January. Scott signed the warrant on June 30 and set the execution for Aug. 2. Valle was convicted of killing a Coral Gables police officer Luis Pena in 1978.

The Florida Department of Corrections is set to use a new drug “cocktail” for the first time in Valle’s execution. In January, the company that manufactures the sedative sodium thiopental, one of the three drugs used to in lethal injections, stopped making the drug, leaving corrections officials in states like Florida that execute prisoners scrambling for a replacement. DOC will now use pentobarbitol, manufactured by the Danish drug company Lundbeck Inc.

The court also ordered DOC to release any correspondence with Lundbeck regarding the use of its drug for executions. The Danish manufacturer has stopped selling the drug to distributors who intend to sell it for use in executions.

The court ordered a hearing on the drug for Aug. 5 in Miami, set oral arguments if necessary on the drug issue for Aug. 24 and postponed Valle’s execution until Sept. 1.

Today, the Supreme Court ordered a hearing on the new drug by Aug. 5,

Supreme Court throws out Ft. Pierce death sentence, orders new trial

Thursday, February 25th, 2010 by Dara Kam

554901The Florida Supreme Court overturned a death sentence for Alwin Tumblin, convicted of murdering a Ft. Pierce auto shop owner in 2004.

The 5-2 ruling also threw out all the convictions associated with the robbery and murder of Jimmy Johns and ordered a new trial for Tumblin.

It is the fifth death sentence the Supreme Court has thrown out in the past four years.

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, both appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, dissented.

Tumblin’s accomplice Anthony Mayes testified against Tumblin and provided the only eyewitness testimony to the crimes. There was no DNA evidence linking Tumblin, then 25, to the murder.

The high court ruled that Tumblin’s previous trial should have ended in a mistrial because St. Lucie County Deputy Dennis Smith’s testimony that Mayes was telling the truth could have tainted the jury’s decision.

For more on this topic, read the TCoastTalk post, Supreme Court orders new trial for man convicted of Fort Pierce murder

Crist re-orders killer’s execution

Friday, February 19th, 2010 by Dara Kam

084761Gov. Charlie Crist for the second time ordered David Eugene Johnston to be put to death by lethal injection, decades after the Death Row inmate convicted of killing an elderly woman was first ordered to be executed.

Crist first ordered Johnston, now 49, to be put to death last year in April but the Florida Supreme Court stayed the execution until DNA tests could be done. Johnston has spent nearly 25 years on Death Row and is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on March 9 at 6 p.m. at Florida State Prison in Starke.

Gov. Bob Martinez signed Johnston’s first death warrant in 1988 after he was sentenced to die for killing 84-year-old Mary Hammond in Orlando.

Johnston appealed that order on a variety of issues, including a claim that he is severely mentally ill.

The DNA tests taken from Hammond’s fingernail clippings could not exclude Johnston as a contributor of the DNA.

The high court ruled last month that the new evidence, including the DNA test results, would not have exonerated him and denied his request for a new trial. And the court ruled that, while Johnston may be mentally ill, he is not mentally retarded and thus can still be executed.

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.

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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