Florida Gov. Rick Scott Steps Up Pace on Signing Death Warrants

Five death warrants signed in 2013, three in recent span of less than four weeks

Monday, May 20, 2013  |  Updated 12:15 PM EDT
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Gov. Rick Scott is signing death warrants at a pace rarely seen in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Scott already has signed five death warrants this year, including three in a recent span of less than four weeks.

"I go through them and when people have exhausted their appeals and when they're finished with their clemency process, then I continue to move the process along," Scott said.

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But death-penalty opponents see the surge in death warrants signed as upsetting.

"He's clearing out death row," said the Rev. Phil Egitto, a Roman Catholic priest from Daytona Beach who organizes protests at each execution. "It's very, very crazy. It's very unusual. It is my understanding that Gov. Scott wants to be hard on crime, but I don't think this is the answer."

So far only one of the five condemned men has been executed — Larry Eugene Mann was put to death by lethal injection last month for kidnapping and murdering 10-year-old Elisa Vera Nelson on Nov. 4, 1980. Still, there are five active warrants. Scott signed John Errol Ferguson's death warrant last year, but the execution has been delayed as his lawyers seek appeals. Florida law states that once a warrant is signed, it remains in full effect even if the initial execution date passes.

If the sentences are carried out this year for each of the active warrants, it would guarantee at least the most executions in Florida in one year since six people were executed in 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush's second year in office. The only other year there have been more than four executions since the death penalty reinstatement was in 1984 under Gov. Bob Graham, when eight people were put to death. Two prisoners were executed in Scott's first year in office, and three were executed last year.

That pace might not continue, though. Scott recognizes that it takes resources at the attorney general's office to challenge appeals and it adds to the courts' workload when warrants are signed, said Pete Antonacci, the governor's top lawyer.

"The governor is sensitive to that and is making sure the system operates smoothly," Antonacci said. "We're making sure we don't do too much at one time."

There are 400 men and five women on Florida's death row — and most of them have been there for more than a decade. Sixteen of the inmates were sentenced in the 1970s, 73 in the 1980s and 142 during the 1990s.

Signing a death warrant isn't just a process of randomly picking a condemned prisoner, Antonacci said. Another lawyer in the governor's offices monitors all death cases and where they stand in the state and federal appeals process.

Once appeals are exhausted, the governor's office will pick cases to undergo a review by the Office of Executive Clemency, which includes an interview with the condemned and other people involved in the case to determine whether there's any reason the governor shouldn't sign a warrant. That process is sometimes delayed because public defenders have to appoint a lawyer for the condemned prisoner and their budgets are limited, Antonacci said.

Antonacci also pointed out that the Supreme Court reviews every death case to make sure the punishment is proper well before the governor signs a death warrant.

Public defenders are suing the state, saying they don't have enough lawyers or money to handle their workload. They're seeking the right to not accept cases. The state Supreme Court is reviewing the claim and has yet to issue an opinion.

The five people now awaiting execution are:

— John Errol Ferguson, condemned for killing eight people in Miami-Dade County in 1977 and 1978, including six who were bound and killed execution-style. At the time it was the largest mass slaying in county history. Scott signed his death warrant Sept. 5, but his execution has been on hold while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit considers his lawyers' claim he suffers from mental illness so severe that he shouldn't be eligible.

— Paul Augustus Howell, a South Florida drug dealer who killed Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jimmy Fulford with a pipe bomb in 1992. Scott signed his death warrant Jan. 18, but the execution is on hold while the 11th Circuit Court considers his lawyers' claim that his trial lawyer had a conflict of interest due to a death threat that prompted him to withdraw from Howell's federal drug case. They also argue that the lawyer failed to find and present mitigating evidence that could have persuaded Howell's jury to recommend a life sentence.

— Elmer Leon Carroll, scheduled to die by lethal injection May 29 for raping and suffocating 10-year-old Christine McGowan after breaking into her Apopka home in 1990. Scott signed his death warrant April 17.

— William Van Poyck, scheduled to die June 12 for the murder of prison guard Fred Griffis in 1987. Scott signed his death warrant May 3.

— Marshall Lee Gore, scheduled to die June 24 for the 1988 murders of Susan Roark and Robyn Novick. He also left a third victim, Tina Coralis, for dead after beating, raping and stabbing her. Scott signed his death warrant Monday.

Meanwhile, Scott is considering whether to sign a bill that would speed up executions by creating tighter timeframes for appeals and post-conviction motions and by imposing reporting requirements on case progress. The measure also would re-establish a separate agency for north Florida to provide appellate-level legal representation to inmates sentenced to death and require them to "pursue all possible remedies in state court."

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