Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pending appeal thwarts execution petition efforts

Burns Jr. has been on death row for more than 21 years


MANATEE — The efforts of a local family seeking to expedite the execution of a Florida death row inmate have stalled.

Daniel Burns Jr. has been on death row at Florida State Prison near Starke for more than 21 years after being found guilty in the murder of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeff Young.

Young’s niece, Debbie Smith, a supervisor with the child protection division of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, drafted an online petition last month and sent it to Gov. Charlie Crist.

As of this week, however, there’s been no response from the governor’s office. And there likely won’t be any time soon because of a pending appeal in the case.

“It’s disappointing,” said Smith, who learned of the appeal shortly after sending the petition to Crist. “I thought all of his appeals were done.”

On Oct. 6, Judge Steven D. Merryday gave the state 45 days to respond to several grounds raised by the defense in a petition challenging the validity of Burns’ conviction and death sentence. The pending appeal is in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

After the state response, Burns and his lawyers have 30 days to respond. Then the state has an additional 20 days to reply after that.

“This could be a matter of months,” said Robert Batey, law professor at Stetson University’s Gulfport campus. “Before you execute somebody, you better be sure the result is correct and that the process was done in a way that was legally and constitutionally fair.”

If denied by the Tampa court, there could be an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit in Atlanta, and, possibly, a “very rare” review by the U.S. Supreme Court, Batey said.

The Polk County case

Smith’s petition drive was ignited by another petition to Crist, started by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd seeking to expedite the execution of Paul Beasley Johnson.

Johnson has been on death row for 28 years after being convicted in the murders of three people, including a deputy. In response, Crist signed Johnson’s death warrant, scheduling the execution for Nov. 4.

But it was stayed by the Florida Supreme Court because of pending appeals. Justice Barbara Pariente said at the start of oral argument in one of those appeals that Crist’s signing of the death warrant put the high court in a “difficult position.”

Seven hours after the argument, justices ordered the indefinite stay of execution.

“It’s obvious there are no standards,” Johnson’s lawyer Martin McClain told the Associated Press after Crist signed the death warrant despite pending appeals. “You have to have a principled way to distinguish between who gets executed and who doesn’t.”

A petition drive, he added, doesn’t cut it.

But the governor apparently took everything into consideration.

“Signing a death warrant is a responsibility that Governor Crist takes very seriously and after a careful review,” Crist press secretary Sterling Ivey said in an e-mail to the Bradenton Herald. “There are a number of items the governor’s legal team reviews before recommending a death warrant be signed.”

According to Ivey, those items include “state of appeals; or issues raised in appeals process.”

When asked what the reasoning was for the governor’s signing of Johnson’s death warrant when he still had outstanding appeals, Ivey said, “We do review the appeals and look at the status of any appeals and the basis for the appeals.”

But Professor Batey said Crist’s signing a death warrant despite pending appeals “appears to be something close to political grandstanding.”

A routine traffic stop

According to numerous eyewitness accounts, Burns wrestled Young to the ground during a routine traffic stop Aug. 18, 1987. Burns then grabbed Young’s gun and shot and killed him with a single bullet to the face, near the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River that now bears the trooper’s name.

Burns’ lawyers have filed numerous appeals. They’ve already gone as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, filing a petition of review that was denied in February 1998. The pending appeal, a petition for writ of habeas corpus, was filed July 20, 2007.

“We, the undersigned, ask Gov. Charlie Crist to expedite this case and sign the death warrant for Daniel Burns,” Smith’s online petition reads on Signatures surpassed 7,533 on Friday.

According to the Florida Department of Corrections:

n There are 386 men and one woman on death row in Florida.

n The average stay on the state’s death row prior to execution is 12.5 years.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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