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Scott signs first death warrant as Florida governor

Manuel Valle, who murdered a Coral Gables police officer 33 years ago, is scheduled to be executed Aug. 2 under the first death warrant signed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Valle, 61, shot and killed Officer Louis Pena on April 2, 1978, after the officer pulled him over. Valle was convicted of the crime soon after.

But Valle avoided execution due to numerous appeals, reversals and re-hearings that stretched all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was sentenced to death three times. Before one of his convictions, he tearfully pleaded for mercy. A Catholic archbishop asked that he be spared.

The governor signed the warrant exactly a week after a federal judge in Miami declared Florida's method of imposing the death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to make specific findings of aggravating factors to justify capital punishment.

The attorney general's office has asked for a rehearing in that case and plans to appeal if U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez doesn't change his mind. The ruling came in the case of Paul H. Evans, who was sentenced to death for killing a man in a 1991 murder-for-hire plot in Vero Beach.

It was unclear Thursday if Valle's attorneys will use the ruling to try to stop the execution.

If Valle's execution is carried out as scheduled he would be the first person executed in Florida in about 18 months. The last executed was Martin Edward Grossman, in February 2010, for killing state wildlife officer Margaret Park in Pinellas County.

Valle is in line to become the 70th convict executed in Florida since the state restored the death penalty in 1979 and the 26th to die by lethal injection. There are currently 399 people on Florida's death row.

Valle's first conviction and death sentence for Pena's murder was reversed by the Florida Supreme Court in 1981. He was retried, convicted and sentenced to death again, but the state justices in 1987 ordered a new sentencing hearing. Valle was sentenced to death a third time the following year.

Officer Pena's family was elated with the news of his pending execution.

"Are they going to fry him?" the slain officer's first wife, Inez Afanador, 73, of Lehigh Acres, said when called by a Miami Herald reporter Thursday night. Told of the death warrant, she cried out "Yippee! On Aug. 2, they're finally going to give him the great needle."

Pena's daughter, Jeneane Skeen, was 13 when her father was murdered. Her three children never got to meet their grandfather.

"It's going to be very important for them. It's significant, he missed out on everything" in their lives, said Skeen, 46.

Skeen said she recently wrote three emails to Gov. Scott asking when Valle would be executed, but got no response. It came Thursday. "God, we're finally going to get justice in this case,'' she said. "We're happy another bad guy finally gets what he deserved."

Valle shot and killed Pena after he was pulled over and detained for running a red light in a stolen car. As the officer checked the tag, Valle managed to exit the patrol car, walk back to the stolen vehicle and retrieve a gun. He walked back to Pena and shot him in the neck.

Officer Gary Spell witnessed the killing and was shot by Valle as well. He was saved by a bullet-proof vest. Valle fled the scene, but was arrested two days later in Deerfield Beach. An accomplice who was in the car, Felix Ruiz, was convicted as an accessory after the fact to the murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Spell recently retired.

"That's amazing. He lasted more than my entire career," Spell said. "It's aggravating that it went on so long. I knew it was a 100 percent just sentence. There was no question about his guilt. I witnessed it. I was shot."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Scott signs first death warrant as Florida governor 06/30/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 30, 2011 9:15pm]
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