Sunday, July 13, 2008

Waiting on death row

A microphone hangs over the gurney in a lethal injection room in this file photo. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has signed two death warrants since a state moratorium on the death penalty was lifted earlier this year.

Tom McLaughlin
July 12, 2008 - 2:37PM
Frank Walls, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Edward Zakrzewski and Daniel Jon Peterka.

This is Okaloosa County's rogues gallery; the men who have been sentenced to die for their crimes.

Their names don't appear in the newspaper or on television much anymore. All but Hutchinson have been on death row for more than a decade. Hutchinson was sentenced to die in 2001.

But on Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a second death warrant since a moratorium on Florida's death penalty was lifted earlier this year.

He has also called, the Associated Press reported, "for a list of about five death-row inmates who have served the longest or committed the most heinous crimes" so he could sign more.

Could one or more of Okaloosa County's death-row inmates be on that list?

The short answer seems to be no, although Assistant State Attorney Bobby Elmore said the governor's office inquired "about a year ago" into the status of Zakrzewski's appeals.

"Mr. Zakrzewski may be on the list. I haven't been told that, but it could be the governor's considering moving him to the top of the list," Elmore said. "I could see the governor looking at Zakrzewski and saying ‘this guy chopped up his kids, he fits the profile for my list.' "

Zakrzewski, an Air Force technical sergeant who was described by witnesses in his defense as a loving father and husband, used a crowbar to bludgeon and strangle his wife, Sylvia. He then hacked his children, ages 7 and 5, to death with a new machete.

The murders occurred June 9, 1994, on Shrewsbury Road in Mary Esther. Zakrzewski fled to the remote Hawaiian island of Molokai, but turned himself in four months later.

But Zakrzewski's lawyers haven't exhausted their state court appeals - he filed his most recent one to the Florida Supreme Court on Jan. 9. Unless he decides to stop the appeals, he'll turn to federal court for relief when he exhausts his state court options.

For its part, the governor's office denies that a list such as the one the AP cited even exists.

"He (Crist) might have asked for a list, but we never produced a list," said Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey.

Ivey said "our legal team is very much aware" of where individual inmates stand in their appeals.

"We're working closely with the Attorney General's Office following appeals as they move through the court system," Ivey said.

Roger Maas, with the Florida Commission on Capital Cases, said a governor traditionally will not sign a death warrant until an inmate has exhausted all of his or her appeals. There are presently 19 inmates on death row whose appeals have run out, including two who have said they want to die.

"None of those guys is ready for a warrant yet," Maas said of Okaloosa County's death-row residents.

But Maas also noted that Crist broke from tradition when he signed the most recent death warrant.

Richard Henyard, slated to die Sept. 23 for the 1993 abduction and rape of a Eustis woman and the murder of her two children, still has an appeal pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

Frank Walls is possibly closer to facing a date with the executioner than Zakrzewski. Walls was convicted in 1988 of two murders, but is believed by many people to have been responsible for several more.

According to Ace Grinsted, an assistant state attorney who has followed the case, Walls has run out of state appeals.

"His conviction has been reviewed by the state Supreme Court and upheld," Grinsted said.

Walls' attorneys, Grinsted said, "were getting ready to start federal appeals" the last time he had contact with them.

Maas said federal courts typically handle death penalty appeals and inmate motions faster than the state courts.

"Federal courts don't grant relief too often," he said.

Walls' conviction was actually overturned the first time he appealed to the state Supreme Court. The case was retried and he was sentenced to death again in 1992.

Daniel Jon Peterka, who was convicted and sentenced to death in April 1990 for the 1989 close-range shooting of his roommate, John Frederick Russell, has appeals pending at the federal and state levels.

The Commission on Capital Cases' Web site states a direct appeal Peterka filed to the Florida Supreme Court in 1990 wasn't heard until 1994. Another motion was filed in state court in 1997 and was not acted upon until 2002, the Web site stated.

Jeffrey Hutchinson was sentenced to die Feb. 6, 2001, for killing his girlfriend and her three children with a shotgun.

Circuit Court Judge G. Robert Barron called the slayings of Renee Flaherty and her children, ages 9, 7 and 4, "especially heinous, atrocious and cruel."

Hutchinson "is nowhere near a death warrant," Elmore said. "He's still in state court legal proceedings."

Like seemingly so many other cases, Hutchinson's first appeal to the Florida Supreme Court sat in limbo for years before it was denied. The appeal was filed in March 2001 and ruled on in July 2004.

Hutchinson's most recent motion to have his conviction overturned was filed with the state's Supreme Court in January.

Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin can be reached at 863-1111, Ext. 1435.

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