Friday, August 31, 2007

Supreme Court rejects prison poet's death penalty appeal

Stephen Todd Booker, a murderer who has spent 26 years on death row, is imprisoned in Raiford, Fla.

Associated Press Writer

Convicted killer Stephen Todd Booker has become an accomplished and nationally published poet since first going on death row 29 years ago, but Thursday the Florida Supreme Court said that's no reason to spare his life.

Booker, who will turn 54 Saturday, raped and fatally stabbed 94-year-old Lorine Demoss Harmon in her Gainesville Apartment in 1977.

After his murder conviction the following year, Booker began writing poetry on topics ranging from life in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., to his romance with a Japanese woman while a soldier stationed in Okinawa.

His work has been published in The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review and other respected literary publications. In 1994, the Wesleyan University Press published a book of his poems, which won an endorsement from poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The high court's 7-0 ruling upholding Booker's death sentence disappointed Southern Methodist University English Professor Willard Spiegleman. He is one of six poetry experts who testified for Booker when he was resentenced after a federal court in 1991 reversed his initial death sentence.

"If a case can be made for a prisoner rehabilitating himself through study, then Stephen Todd Booker would certainly qualify for that," Spiegleman said. "It seems to me to be a case of pure vengeance. He's no threat to society."

Booker's lawyer, Harry Brody, said he plans to ask the Supreme Court to rehear the case or appeal to the federal courts.

Booker challenged his death sentence but not his guilt. The only other sentencing option is life in prison.

"When I got to death row, I couldn't blame it on society," Booker said in a 2004 interview with The New York Times. "I knew I'd put myself in prison."

He raised a variety of issues including a claim his death would violate the First Amendment right of the public to read his work. He also contended his former lawyer was ineffective because he failed to call three additional witnesses, all experts on the poet Ezra Pound. They would have compared him to Pound, who "had been freed from a death sentence," Booker argued.

Pound was charged with treason for criticizing the U.S. government in radio broadcasts from Italy during World War II. Writer Ernest Hemingway and other supporters suggested Pound plead insanity. He was found insane and the charges were dropped after he spent 13 years in a mental institution.

The Supreme Court wrote in its unsigned opinion that calling more witnesses would have added little to the case because another expert, Oberlin College Professor Stuart Friebert, already had testified Pound was "pardoned."

Also, the justices noted Circuit Judge Robert P. Cates, who resentenced Booker after a jury voted 8-4 for death, gave the argument little weight.

"The fact that one has learned a skill, whether it's poetry or cabinet-building or whatever it may be, the practice of law, is not a reason not to impose the death penalty," Cates then said. "If Shakespeare had committed this crime, regrettably, I think we would be missing a lot of enjoyable plays."

Also, Cates gave no weight to a plea for mercy from the victim's great niece, Page Zyromski. The judge did give great or substantial weight to other mitigating factors including Booker's extreme mental or emotional disturbance and a childhood that included sexual and physical abuse.

Cates found those circumstances, though, were outweighed by the heinous nature of the killing and other aggravating factors: the victim was raped and her home broken into and Booker committed the crimes while on parole for prior violent felony.

The justices also found Booker failed to offer legal support for his free press argument and a claim that his literary accomplishments constituted new mitigating evidence.

Brody said the free press issue underlies the entire case.

He also cited the prestige of the publications that published Booker's poetry and the academic credentials of his expert witnesses. They include Syracuse University Professor Emeritus Hayden Carruth who called Booker "a person of consequence" in the literary community.

"That voice will be silenced," Brody said. "This is not just jailhouse jive that we're talking about here."

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