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Florida executes man condemned for killing Pinellas wildlife officer

STARKE — Florida has executed a 45-year-old man condemned for the murder of a young wildlife officer in Pinellas County 25 years ago.

Martin Edward Grossman was pronounced dead by lethal injection at 6:17 p.m.. His attorneys had tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a last-minute stay, but the high court declined.

Grossman was condemned for shooting and killing wildlife officer Margaret "Peggy" Park, 26, on Dec. 13, 1984. Park's 79-year-old mother went against a doctor's suggestion and traveled from Ohio to attend the execution, as did other family members.

"I would like to extend my heartfelt remorse to the victim's family," Grossman said in his last statement. "I fully regret everything that occurred that night. Everything that was done, whether I remember everything or not, I accept responsibility."

Grossman then said a sacred Jewish prayer and closed his eyes as a three-chemical cocktail began flowing into his body just after 6 p.m.. His chest stopped moving at 6:04 p.m. and a doctor pronounced him dead 13 minutes later.

The execution came after a whirlwind day in which death penalty opponents and religious leaders — Jewish and Catholic — pleaded with Gov. Charlie Crist to halt the execution.

Though the Vatican called for mercy for Grossman, even the pope didn't argue that he was innocent.

Grossman "has repented and is now a changed person, having become a man of faith,'' wrote Archbishop Fernando Filoni on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI. He asked for "whatever steps may be possible to save the life of Mr. Grossman.''

Filoni wrote the letter at the behest of the chief rabbi of Israel, Shear-Yashuv Cohen.

Grossman, meanwhile, declined the traditional last meal. Instead, he had a banana cream and peanut butter cookies, canned fruit punch and a chicken sandwich he bought himself from the inmate canteen, according to the Department of Corrections.

His last visitors were his aunt and two friends.

Activists against the death penalty took up Grossman's case, including several Jewish organizations that pleaded for clemency, asking Gov. Charlie Crist to commute his sentence to life in prison.

Amnesty International said it had "serious questions about the quality of his legal representation and compelling mental health evidence that was never presented to a jury."

More than 26,000 people signed an online petition asking that Grossman's life be spared. Nobel prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel also weighed in on his behalf.

Rabbis from groups including the Rabbinical Council of America, the Aleph Institute and the National Council of Young Israel wrote to Crist on Feb. 9 asking him to spare Grossman's life because he "has shown profound remorse and regret" for the officer's murder.

"He acted under the influence of drugs and alcohol. His fatal shooting of Ms. Parks was not an act of premeditation but of panic," the letter said. "He has transformed himself from a deeply troubled teenager into a gentle and simple man, a proud practitioner of his faith and a humble servant of God."

Crist said Tuesday that his office was the target of "almost an outcry" of nearly 50,000 e-mails, phone calls and letters from people urging him to spare Grossman's life. "We've been swamped," Crist said.

"I'm getting calls from people who are asking me to stay this execution," Crist said, "and then once I inquired, 'Do you know what the facts are?' I find that they unfortunately do not . . . Sometimes the story can almost get ahead of the facts."

Crist said he was standing on a Miami International Airport runway tarmac Tuesday afternoon when a close friend of his wife called his cell phone and asked him to halt the execution. Crist said she changed her mind after he described how the killing occurred. The woman, whom Crist declined to identify, said, according to the governor: "I'm glad you shared what the real facts are. I'm sorry to have taken your time."

Crist said a group of rabbis and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz were among those urging the execution be stopped. "The sincerity of their message is without question," Crist said. "I've reached the conclusion that justice must be done."  

In a speech to small business owners that was mostly about the state of Florida's economy, Crist, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, went into great detail on the circumstances of the case, including describing the killer as "blowing her brains out." 

The governor said he spoke Monday with former Gov. Bob Martinez, who signed Grossman's initial death warrant two decades ago. "I was just seeking his advice, because it's always a good idea," Crist said.    

A spokesman for the governor said that by Friday night the office had received more than 9,443 e-mails and more than 7,849 phone calls about the Grossman case.

"Signing a death warrant is a responsibility that Governor Crist takes very seriously," spokesman Sterling Ivey wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, "and the warrant for Martin Grossman was signed after a careful review …"

Grossman is the first inmate Florida has put to death for killing a law enforcement officer since the September 2006 execution of Clarence Hill. The Alabama man was executed at the age of 48 for ambushing two Pensacola police officers after a bank robbery on Oct. 19, 1982. He shot and killed Officer Stephen Taylor and wounded another officer as they tried to arrest Hill's accomplice.

Grossman, of Pasco County, was 19 when he killed Park as she tried to arrest him and 17-year-old Thayne Nathan Taylor in what is now the Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs.

Grossman has spent the latter half of his life in prison for the murder. He is the first Florida execution of 2010 and the 69th since the death penalty was restored in 1976.

Park, a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission officer, found a stolen Luger pistol in the van Grossman and Taylor were in and tried to report it.

But Grossman, fearing that the offense would violate his probation and land him back in prison, attacked the officer with her own flashlight as she used her radio.

"I'm hit," Park yelled over the radio.

Grossman called for Taylor to help him subdue the officer. Park managed to draw her .357 Magnum and fire off a wild shot inside her patrol vehicle. Then she kicked Taylor in the groin.

But Grossman, 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, overpowered the 5-foot-5, 115-pound officer. He broke her fingers wrenching the .357 away from Park and shot her in the back of the head.

The two men escaped but were arrested 11 days later. Grossman was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death a year to the day of the murder. Taylor was convicted of third-degree murder and served two years of his seven-year sentence.

Park had grown up in Columbus, Ohio, and quickly developed an affinity for the outdoors. She camped with park rangers in Ontario and especially enjoyed the sounds of wolves howling.

She graduated from Ohio State University and came to Florida to become a wildlife officer. She quickly took to the law enforcement side of her new post, though it often required her to patrol alone.

"I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a park ranger," she told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview before her death. "It will never be a job."

After her service, Park's ashes were scattered by helicopter over the eagles' nests she helped care for as a wildlife officer.

In 2007, a stone marker was placed in the Brooker Creek Preserve in East Lake to honor "an officer fallen in the cause of conservation."

Park's brother, sister and mother, Peggy, 79, planned to attend the execution. The mother came from Ohio despite a cardiologist's order not to travel.

Florida executes man condemned for killing Pinellas wildlife officer 02/16/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 6:39pm]
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