Thursday, January 14, 2010

Court vacates Polk killer's death sentences due to prosecutor's misconduct

Court vacates Polk killer's death sentences due to prosecutor's misconduct

By Colleen Jenkins, Times Staff Writer
Posted: Jan 14, 2010 12:13 PM

TAMPA — The Florida Supreme Court vacated the death sentences Thursday of a Polk County triple murderer whose death warrant was signed last year by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Paul B. Johnson, 60, was convicted of gunning down a sheriff's deputy and two other people in 1981. Last summer, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd personally asked the governor to consider signing Johnson's death warrant.

But Thursday, a majority of justices ordered a new penalty phase before a new jury, writing that "the record here is so rife with evidence of previously undisclosed prosecutorial misconduct that we have no choice but to grant relief."

Johnson was condemned to die Nov. 4 by lethal injection, but the court issued an indefinite stay of execution in October to give justices time to consider issues raised in the appeal.

Justices ruled that newly discovered evidence showed the state induced Johnson into making incriminating statements to a jailhouse informant, then used that testimony at his trial despite knowing that it was inadmissible.

"The reversal of the death sentences in this case is directly attributable to the misconduct of the original prosecutor," the majority opinion written by Justice James E.C. Perry said. "He knowingly presented false testimony and misleading argument to the court in an effort to convince the court that a jailhouse informant was not acting on
instructions from the state when he gathered information from Johnson.

"In fact, however, the informant was acting on instructions from the state, and this rendered his testimony inadmissible. The prosecutor knew this."

The majority found the prosecutor's misconduct compromised the integrity of the penalty phase of Johnson's trial.

"This is not a case of overzealous advocacy, but rather a case of deliberately misleading the court," justices wrote.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at

or (813) 226-3337 (813) 226-3337.

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