Insanity hearing gives killer a chance
The Florida Supreme Court orders a hearing for Thomas Provenzano, whose lawyers say he is too insane to be executed.
By LUCY MORGAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- Condemned murderer Thomas Provenzano will get a chance to prove he's too insane to die in Florida's electric chair at a hearing ordered Thursday by the Florida Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the condemned killer say he is so mentally incompetent he cannot be legally executed. Provenzano signs his letters Jesus Christ and stuffs his mouth to keep out demons, his lawyers say.
Psychiatrists for the state say Provenzano is faking and should be executed.
The Supreme Court did not postpone Provenzano's Sept. 14 execution date but did appoint retired Circuit Judge E. Randolph Bentley of Polk County to schedule a hearing and determine whether Provenzano is insane.
Bentley said Thursday night that he plans to hear the case the week of Sept. 6 or by the end of next week, if possible.
Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Snurkowski said she doesn't believe the decision poses a problem for the state since there is plenty of time for a hearing before mid-September.
Attorneys for Provenzano said they were optimistic the hearing will lead to a determination that will save Provenzano's life.
The court's 6-1 ruling said that the evidence presented by Provenzano's lawyers establishes reasonable grounds to believe he is incompetent. In a report presented to the court by his lawyers, Dr. Patricia Fleming, a clinical psychologist, said Provenzano's behavior demonstrates he is incompetent to face execution.
Psychiatrists appointed by the state disagree. It will be up to Bentley to decide who is correct.
Noting the last-minute nature of Provenzano's claim, the court urged legislators to consider establishing a timetable for when such claims must be filed. Provenzano's lawyers filed his claim one day before he was scheduled to die, although he has been on death row for 15 years.
Justice Charles T. Wells disagreed with the majority, saying the court should have accepted the decision of a lower court judge who said Provenzano was not entitled to a sanity hearing. Wells said the opinion of the defense psychologist was issued without a contemporary examination and outweighed by the opinion of three state-appointed psychiatrists who say he is competent to be executed.
Provenzano, 50, was convicted of shooting bailiff William Wilkerson at the Orange County courthouse while there for a hearing on a disorderly conduct charge. He killed Wilkerson and paralyzed two other officers in the 1984 rampage.
Bentley, 66, served as a circuit judge in Bartow for 22 years before retiring in 1997. He twice sentenced men to die and once overturned the state's obscenity law only to see that ruling overturned.
As a circuit judge, Bentley developed a reputation for impatience with lawyers who came to his courtroom unprepared. He is a University of Florida graduate who practiced law with Lawton Chiles before Chiles was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Bentley is no stranger to high-profile death cases. One of the men he sentenced to death was William Kelley for the 1966 contract slaying of Sebring millionaire Charles Von Maxcy. Kelley remains on death row. The other man, Phillip Atkins, was executed in 1995 for the bludgeoning death of a 6-year-old Lakeland boy.