Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Crist needs to rein in death-by-petition

The Tampa Tribune

Published: October 14, 2009

Floridians who support the death penalty are understandably frustrated by the seemingly endless appeals that can delay justice for decades.

Still, Gov. Charlie Crist sends a dangerous message when he allows petition drives to influence the signing of death warrants. Allowing public outrage to affect signings diminishes the justice system and politicizes the gravest of decisions.

Last week Crist signed a death warrant against the killer of a Polk County sheriff's deputy and two others during a vicious 1981 crime spree. The decision came about a week after Polk Sheriff Grady Judd started an online petition drive urging the governor to sign the warrant.

A coincidence? It doesn't look that way.

As the Tribune's Ray Reyes reported, Judd said he talked to Crist about the case in August, and "he told me he would be all over it." A spokeswoman for the governor downplayed the timing of Crist signing the warrant, saying the Polk case and others had been under review for some time.

But it wasn't until a week after the sheriff started his petition - which was signed by more than 2,050 residents and attracted press coverage - that the governor felt obligated to put his signature on paper.

The inmate, Paul Beasley Johnson, deserves to pay the ultimate penalty. But the timing by the self-proclaimed "people's governor" is suspicious, and Johnson's attorney says he hasn't exhausted all his appeals.

Now, as a result of the grandstanding Judd's efforts, a petition drive has been launched to persuade Crist to schedule the execution of a man who killed a state trooper near the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River in 1987.

The Bradenton Herald reported that the family of the slain trooper, Jeff Young, started the petition after seeing a news report about Judd's effort.

Crist needs to discourage this death-by-petition movement. Otherwise, grieving families will feel compelled to undertake similar campaigns. The governor's decision on when to sign a death warrant should not be based on which case has generated the most public outrage.

First-degree murder and death penalty statutes are complicated by design and allow for several appeals. That's because nothing can be left to chance when someone is sentenced to die. Whether the right person has been convicted and the condemned receives a fair trial have to be examined in detail.

Appeals must be exhausted, and cases must be thoroughly reviewed by attorneys before a governor should sign a death warrant and schedule an execution.

Yes, it is absurd that someone can remain on death row for decades after a conviction.

And yes, the system does seem tilted in favor of the defendant, forcing survivors to relive their nightmares far too many times.

But if Crist - a lawyer and former Florida attorney general - is facing such a backlog of death row cases that he needs more lawyers to help him review them, he should hire them.

Public sentiment should have nothing to do with when the governor decides to sign a death warrant.

In fact, such poor policy could result in yet more appeals - further delaying the justice sought by the victims' families.

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