TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked the execution of a triple murderer and expressed frustration over Gov. Charlie Crist's decision to sign a death warrant while the killer still had appeals pending.
At the start of oral arguments Wednesday, Justice Barbara Pariente said Crist's decision to sign Paul Johnson's death warrant put the court in a "difficult position." Johnson, 60, was condemned to die Nov. 4 by lethal injection at Florida State Prison in Starke.
Justices did not immediately rule on Johnson's appeal. They said the indefinite stay of execution was needed to give them time to "consider significant issues raised" in the appeal.
Crist signed Johnson's death warrant in response to the personal intervention of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, followed by an online and paper petition drive with more than 3,000 people contacting the governor's office in support of Johnson's execution.
Johnson gunned down a sheriff's deputy, Theron Burnham, and two other people in 1981 in Polk. After smoking marijuana and injecting crystal methedrine into his system, he told friends he was going to get more drugs and money even if he had to shoot someone.
Crist, who has appointed four of the high court's seven justices, said he respected their decision.
"I always have respect for the judicial branch, and they have to do what they have to do," Crist said in an interview after the court's decision. "It's been 28 years. That's an incredibly long time. But you have to balance that with the fact that you're dealing with life and death here."
Crist said Judd personally asked him to consider signing Johnson's death warrant at the August funeral of a Tampa police officer. The governor said Judd's intervention was critical in his decision to act.
"He spoke to me about it, so I asked to look at the file and concluded that justice needed to be done in this case," Crist said. "That's why I signed the warrant. He (Judd) was very persuasive to me. … Certainly it persuaded me that it was an important case to look at and review. The sheriff has the right to speak to me, just like anybody else."
In a statement Wednesday, Judd said the case has dragged on too long.
Johnson "had his 28 years in court. The time for his continued victimization of the families of the three men he murdered in cold blood so long ago has come to an end. … The only question is how long our criminal justice system will allow delay after delay to occur," Judd said.
Five justices heard the case; two others, Chief Justice Peggy Quince and Justice Charles Canady, recused themselves.
Johnson's lawyer, Martin McClain, argued Johnson's three murder convictions and death sentences should be reversed because newly discovered evidence — notes written by a prosecutor in 1981 — shows a jailhouse snitch had been improperly allowed to testify at trial.
Assistant Deputy Attorney General Candace Sabella said the notes are not new, and it's too late to bring them up. She also argued other evidence is strong enough to sustain the death sentences without the snitch's testimony.
Johnson has another appeal pending in federal court in Tampa. He asked the Supreme Court for a stay of execution until those cases and a new appeal in Polk County are resolved.
The Polk appeal challenges the way the death warrant was signed, contending it violated the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment.
After Wednesday's hearing, McClain said it was "unprecedented" that an execution was ordered for an inmate who has not yet had a habeas corpus hearing in federal court under a 1996 law that permitted death warrants without execution dates.
"You have to have a principled way to distinguish between who gets executed and who doesn't," McClain said.
McClain did not say that Crist, a U.S. Senate candidate emphasizing a law-and-order record, is playing politics with the death penalty. "All I can say is … his spokesperson has acknowledged that the online petition for the Polk County sheriff's department was a significant factor," McClain said.
Last month, a sheriff's lieutenant began an electronic petition drive in support of Johnson's execution at www.gopetition.com, Within a week it had more than 2,000 supporters.
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.