Sunday, July 8, 2007
By DEREK SIMMONSEN
July 8, 2007
When a jury unanimously recommended recently that Alwyn Tumblin should be put to death for the murder of Fort Pierce auto shop owner Jimmy Johns, the wheels were set in motion for him to join a small, but infamous group of residents from the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee County.
Tumblin will be sentenced later this summer by Circuit Judge James McCann, and the judge must give the jury's decision "great weight" when he hands down the punishment. If Tumblin receives death, he would be the third person in a year on the Treasure Coast to head to Death Row: Eugene McWatters was sentenced to die in December for the murder of three women and Steven Hayward received the same fate in June for his killing of a Tribune news carrier.
Although it might appear being sentenced to death is the end of the line, the judge's sentence is really just the start of a process that can last decades and actually might never end with execution.
Some cases have lingered on Florida's Death Row for decades, but recent changes could mean less delay from sentencing to execution.
More recent death penalty cases have been moving faster after the state and federal government streamlined the process and imposed stricter time limits on when inmates could file claims, according to Assistant State Attorney Ryan Butler, head of the local legal affairs division. Cases that have occurred since 2000 fall under these new time limits, and those cases have been heard before the Florida Supreme Court faster and also had post-conviction motions, in which inmates typically make complaints about the quality of their attorneys, move faster, too.
"Whether that will translate to a quicker execution, we'll see in five or 10 years," Butler said. "Certainly their appeals are being exhausted more quickly."
The process still frustrates prosecutors who see inmates sit for years and years on Death Row waiting for an execution that gets pushed further and further into the future.
"It's just become a game for the defense bar to delay and stall for as long as possible," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl. "Our position is that we wish to litigate these issues rapidly and expeditiously because it just delays justice."
But Chief Assistant Public Defender Mark Harllee, who has handled a number of local capital cases, said the system does move faster than it has in the past and delay is not necessarily a bad thing.
"I feel like you've got to strike a balance between the interests of the victim's family and the due process rights of the convicted killer and you don't want to do it so quickly that you miss something just for the sake of going quickly through the process," Harllee said. "There's been quite a few cases that have made their way well into the process that have been reversed for one reason or another."
THE APPEALS PROCESS
• Once a defendant is sentenced to death, the case goes on automatic appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. Recent cases from the Treasure Coast have taken about two years before the justices have heard oral arguments, and the opinions typically are not released until months later. The justices look for any errors that occurred during the trial, such as a judge making a bad ruling on a motion or evidence being wrongly admitted. A new trial potentially could be ordered.
• The process then moves into post-conviction challenges. This is when the inmate addresses the performance of his attorneys: decisions on what witnesses they called or didn't call, how they prepared for the case and motions or objections they made.
• The post-conviction challenge is heard before a circuit judge, sometimes the same judge that presided over the trial. This process can be like a "mini-trial" with witnesses, but no jury, and can take a week or more. If the judge finds no problems with how the lawyers performed, the case goes back to the Florida Supreme Court for review.
• If the Florida Supreme Court again finds no reason to overturn the conviction and sentence, the inmate typically appeals to the federal system, first to a district court, then an appeals court and finally to the U.S. Supreme Court. This must be done within one year of the end of the inmate's state appeals.
• Appeals beyond this point require unusual circumstances, such as a change in the law or newly discovered evidence. At that point, an inmate again can work a new claim through the state and federal systems.
• Once all appeals are exhausted, the governor signs a death warrant. This typically prompts another wave of last-minute motions at state and federal levels, but these motions usually are expedited.
GETTING OFF DEATH ROW
Having a death sentence thrown out in the appeals process does happen. Here are two recent cases when it occurred:
• Rodney Lowe, 37, was sentenced to death after being found guilty in 1991 of the murder of a Palm Bay convenience store clerk. A circuit judge set aside his death sentence and granted a new penalty phase hearing after new evidence emerged he did not act alone in the incident and another person confessed to the shooting.
• Daniel Perez, 29, was sentenced to death for the 2001 murder of a Port St. Lucie woman who was bludgeoned and stabbed 94 times during a burglary at her home. The death sentence was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, and Perez agreed to a deal with prosecutors that put him in prison for life rather than going through a new penalty phase of the trial.
HOW CLOSE ARE SOME LOCAL KILLERS TO EXECUTION?
• All of the state and federal appeals are exhausted for Jim Chandler, 52, who bludgeoned an elderly Sebastian couple to death in July 1980. He now is pursuing claims about the method of execution being cruel and unusual — related to problems that occurred in a December execution — and is the closest to being executed of anyone from the Treasure Coast, according to the State Attorney's Office.
• Billy Kearse, 34, who shot Fort Pierce police Sgt. Danny Parrish 13 times in 1991, currently is appealing the quality of his legal assistance before the Florida Supreme Court, and he has joined a petition filed by numerous Death Row inmates against the current method of lethal injection.
• The appeal of Alphonso Cave, 48, who along with co-defendants J.B. Parker and James Earl Bush kidnapped and killed Julia Frances Slater in 1982, is currently in the federal system. J.B. Parker, 45, has a hearing set for October to determine whether he had adequate legal help during his trial and to determine if he is too mentally incompetent to be executed. Bush was executed in 1996.
ABOUT EXECUTIONS IN FLORIDA:
• Prior to 1923, executions were carried out by individual counties, typically by hanging. In 1923, the electric chair was designated the official state means of execution and in 2000, lethal injection was added as an alternative, with inmates given the right to choose which method they wanted.
• Three drugs are currently used in Florida's lethal injections: sodium pentothal, an anesthetic; pancuronium bromide, a nerve blocker and muscle paralyzer; and potassium chloride, a drug to stop the heart.
• The executioner is a private citizen who is paid $150 per execution. The identity is kept anonymous by state law.
A TEMPORARY HALT TO EXECUTIONS:
• Angel Diaz, a convicted murderer asked "What's happening?" twice during his Dec. 13 execution, which took 34 minutes, twice as long as is typically normal. It was later learned the IV needles for the lethal injection had pushed completely through his veins, with the poison collecting in the muscles of his arms and slowing the process.
• Former Gov. Jeb Bush called for a moratorium on the state's death penalty and asked for a commission to study lethal injection — Florida was one of seven states that put the penalty on hold while studying lethal injection. Gov. Charlie Crist announced in May he would begin signing death warrants again after the commission came up with 37 suggestions to improve executions in the state.
• Among the changes were more training for execution teams, better lighting in the death chamber and improving the communications systems. Critics say the process is still too secret and the execution teams lack proper medical training — doctors and other medical professionals are barred by ethics rules from participating in the procedures. There also have been arguments raised that the three chemicals used causing excruciating pain that likely violates constitutional bans on cruel and unusual punishment.
WHAT'S LIFE LIKE ON DEATH ROW?
• Death row cells are 6-by-9-by-9.5 feet high; inmates are moved to different cells once a death warrant is signed.
• Men are held at Florida State Prison in Starke or at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford; women are held at Lowell Correctional Institution Annex in Lowell
• Inmates get three meals a day, served at 5 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• Last meals must be purchased locally and cost no more than $40
• Inmates are allowed to shower every other day
• They are kept in their cells except for medical reasons, exercise and visitation
• Inmates are allowed to receive mail and can have cigarettes, snacks, radio and a 13" television in their cells. They are not allowed cable TV or air conditioning. They do not have common rooms. They can watch church services on TV.
• All Death Row inmates wear special orange T-shirts, but they wear the same blue pants worn by regular inmates.
Material for boxes comes from the State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Corrections and the Associated Press.