Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Though Gov. Charlie Crist had signed a death warrant, court stays execution

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, Within a week it had more than 2,000 supporters.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Though Gov. Charlie Crist had signed a death warrant, court stays execution 10/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 29, 2009 8:21am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Mulberry teens, 15 and 18, killed when cars collide at Plant City intersection


    MULBERRY — The local high school has an enrollment of 1,000 but to some it feels like a tight-knit family. Many of Mulberry High School's students have spent all of their school days within the city limits, said principal Michael Young.

    Pepe Salgado, 18, was killed Friday along with his sister Frinzi Salgado-Diaz, 15, in a car crash in Plant City. They were passengers in a car driven by their cousin Edilberto Nava-Marcos, 18, who was transported to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center and was listed in critical condition. All three lived in Mulberry and attended Mulberry High School. [Polk County School District]
  2. Assisted living facility owner accused of sexually assaulting employee in Pinellas


    ST. PETERSBURG — An assisted living facility owner was arrested Thursday on charges that he sexually assaulted an employee, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said.

  3. Find serenity at Grand Cayman Island's Cemetery Beach



    Hey, cruisers, if you've been to Hell and back, snuggled with the stingrays and taken photos with the turtles at the Cayman Turtle Centre, you might be looking for something different on your next trip. (Guilty!)

    Good snorkeling can be found off shore at Cemetery Beach in Grand Cayman.
  4. Editorial: Honoring a solemn sacrifice


    For a nation still slogging away in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones across the globe, this Memorial Day holiday marks the latest commemoration of sacrifice abroad, of uncertainty over America's role in securing the globe and of the country's great debt to its military families. The peace of yesterday is almost …

  5. Four Brandon middle school students face child porn charges related to sex video


    BRANDON — Four Burns Middle School students, ages 12 to 14, have been arrested on child pornography charges after one secretly recorded a girl in a sex act and the others posted it online, authorities said Friday.