Monday, November 16, 2009

November 19, 2009-Johnson's stay

Dear Sis~
Well, as I predicted, the execution of Paul Johnson did not take place last Wednesday; The Florida Supreme Court granted him an indefinite stay of execution just hours after his lawyer, Marty McClain, gave his oral arguments before the court. In granting Johnson a stay, the court chastised Gov. Crist for signing the death warrant in the first place. You may recall that Crist signed this warrant simply because the sheriff of Polk County initiated an online petition to Crist to sign Johnson's warrant. Crist admitted publicly that the petition was a factor in his decision to sign the warrant. The problem, as the court pointed out, was that Johnson already had an appeal pending before the Florida Supreme Court, and he's never even been in the federal courts yet - that's a 3-5 year detour right there. There was really no chance Johnson would be executed, so signing his warrant was a waste of time; worse, it was simply pandering. Now, as I predicted in one of my earlier posts, the copy cats (encouraged by Crist's action in responding to the sheriff's petition) are jumping on board. I understand there is now a new petition circulating, urging Crist to sign a death warrant for a guy named Daniel Burns (I don't know him). If Crist caves in on this one, it will open the flood gates to "petitions" for everyone (execution by popular demand). FYI for all the fiscal conservatives out there, a lot of taxpayer's money was wasted by this last fiasco in signing Johnson's death warrant; it was a complete waste of money & scarce government resources)...
For the last several weeks I've been working an a guy's case (he's not on death row), hammering out a post conviction motion for him. This is a sad, tragic case, and it's more than a little depressing for me as I work on it; I had to read the entire record on appeal, including the trial transcripts, and check out some horrific crime scene photos. In a nutshell, the case looks like this: the prisoner was a 19-year old kid with a long history of mental illness aggravated by poly substance abuse. He had an 18-year old wife, who also had a history of mental illness and drug abuse. She was totally devoted to him, despite his manifest problems, and by all reports he loved her, too. They had a one-year old daughter. Both parents lived on the margins of society, living in trailer parks, motels, etc. In the weeks before the crime, the kid began acting weird and strange - he was in the midst o a psychotic breakdown - and he'd become homeless, living on the streets and in the woods. He was not welcome to stay at friends' houses due to his increasingly bizarre actions; his wife was living with various friends, bouncing from house to house, begging people to help her husband. It culminates when he takes his wife into the woods, near the bay side, and inexplicably kills her. He strangled her, cut her head off, cut her torso from sternum to pubic bone and removed all her reproductive organs. He placed the head and organs into a cloth bag and swam out into the bay, for one mile, where he let the bag sink. Back on shore, he half buried the body. It took a week before the body was found; he was an immediate suspect and he gave a rambling bizarre "confession" where he said he was Satan, that his wife agreed to die, as a mutual sacrifice to Satan. He was fulfilling Chapters 11 and 12 of the Biblical book of Revelations, he asserted. He was clearly psychotic. That night in jail he cut open his scrotum with a razor blade and tried to remove a testicle (voices told him to "cast out the demon seed"). Three doctors declared him incompetent and psychotic and he spent a year in a mental institution, heavily medicated, until the doctors declared him competent to stand trial. His lawyer (who never filed a single substantive motion) waived his jury trial & pled him not guilty by reason of insanity. He had a 2-day bench trial (before a judge, not a jury); the judge declared he was sane at the time of the crime (or, more accurately, that he was not legally insane) and immediately sentenced him to life without parole. That was 2 years ago. His direct appeal was unsuccessful (he had only one issue on appeal, regarding a jury instruction). My job is to try to salvage this case, and it's a hard row to hoe. On a personal level it's tough - I keep thinking about the poor girl, his devoted wife who, until the end, was desperately trying to help her unstable husband, doing everything possible to stick with him, to the point where she voluntarily moved into the woods with him. It's just very sad, all the way around (she had a big family, a mom and many sisters, and their grief is palpable in the record). The state sought the death penalty right up up until the end, when the victim's family prevailed upon the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty. Even in their grief, they did not want to see the boy put to death. This is one of those cases - when I read so much tragic documentation, where the pain and grief infests my mind - when I wish I wasn't into legal work.

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