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Florida Death Row Pauses as Justices Rethink Law

Crime: The state court's stay of two executions casts doubt on the fate of 371 similar cases. The move could have national implications.

July 10, 2002|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Linroy Bottoson, a convicted murderer, had eaten his final meal of seafood, fried chicken, apple pie and butter-pecan ice cream. But six hours before the 63-year-old was supposed to die by injection, Florida's Supreme Court halted his execution.

The justices wanted to reconsider whether the state's death penalty is constitutional, in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Their action Monday threw capital cases across Florida into uncertainty and raised the possibility that all 371 inmates on the state's death row could have their sentences overturned. It also could have national repercussions.

"It's going to produce a lot of litigation and the need for a lot of hearings and legal work to get to the point where it's all clarified," predicted Nancy Daniels, a public defender in Tallahassee.

The surprise 6-1 decision by Florida's highest court to temporarily stay the executions of Bottoson and 47-year-old Amos Lee King Jr.--another killer who was scheduled to die today--was motivated by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in an Arizona case.

In Ring vs. Arizona, the high court said only a jury, and not a judge alone, can impose a death sentence. The justices' decision threw out the death penalty laws in Arizona and four other states: Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska. Legal scholars said it still is uncertain how the ruling applies to Florida, Alabama, Delaware and Indiana, where juries make recommendations on whether a criminal should live or die but the judge makes the final decision.

"Before another person is executed in this state, the only responsible decision that this court can make ... is to reevaluate this court's opinions on this issue," Florida Justice Barbara Pariente said Monday. "Given the gravity of the issue and the potential impact on our state's judicial system," added Justice Major B. Harding, "I think this court must proceed with caution."

The court has scheduled oral arguments on the issue for Aug. 21 in Tallahassee.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's position is that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling has no bearing on Florida or its 1972 statute on capital punishment. Bush signed death warrants for Bottoson and King last week, well after the June 24 decision in the Arizona case.

Bottoson was convicted of robbing a postmaster in 1979, holding her captive for more than three days, stabbing her 16 times and then crushing her to death with a car. A jury voted, 10 to 2, to recommend the death penalty. (Monday's final meal was, in fact, Bottoson's second; in February, he came within three hours of execution.)

King was convicted of murdering a woman in 1997. This week's stay of execution was his third.

In a statement after the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth E. Hirst complained that "justice is long overdue for the families of the victims murdered by Bottoson and King." The governor was reviewing the court order, she said.

Jonathan Simon, a professor of criminal procedure at the University of Miami law school, said the law in Florida and other states with similar sentencing mechanisms in capital cases probably will need to be rewritten to pass constitutional muster. "Voters around the country, whether they like it or not, are going to be confronted with what they want to do about the death penalty."

"The 300-plus cases on Florida's death row could very well be commuted to life or sent back for some kind of new sentencing process," Simon said. "Either way, that's a very dramatic development."

Of the states potentially affected by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, Florida has the largest number of inmates sentenced to die. And any decision it makes could fuel a trend. "It looks like the public has strong support for the death penalty," Daniels said. "But in light of recent revelations about the fairness of the system, people are saying they want this looked at more closely."

Twenty-one people have been released from Florida's death row because DNA or other evidence cast strong doubt on their convictions, said Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology and a specialist on capital punishment at the University of Colorado. In 166 instances, he said, Florida judges have disregarded a jury's recommendation and imposed a death sentence. Four such convicts have been executed.

Chief Justice Charles T. Wells was the sole member of the Florida Supreme Court to vote against staying this week's scheduled executions, objecting that the Ring decision "deals with Arizona." Wells noted that last week the U.S. Supreme Court itself declined to hear Bottoson's arguments that he should not be executed and lifted an earlier stay of execution issued for him.

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