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Bush ad on death penalty assailed

An emotionally wrenching television ad about the death penalty set off a volley of charges Tuesday between Gov. Lawton Chiles and his Republican opponent, Jeb Bush.

In the ad, Wendy Nelson of Tarpon Springs talks about the murder of her 10-year-old daughter in 1980 and blames Chiles for not signing a death warrant to execute the killer.

Two weeks ago, Bush mentioned the woman in a speech in Orlando but refused to release her name because he said he wanted to respect her privacy. Now she is endorsing him on statewide television.

Chiles called the ad "reprehensible," and a group of lawyers who support the governor said the spot grossly distorts his record on the death penalty. They said he has done more to streamline death appeals than any governor since the death penalty's reinstatement in 1979.

"I have taken the necessary steps to speed up the process so justice can be carried out more quickly," Chiles said. "Jeb Bush has no understanding of the legal system."

A former Florida Supreme Court justice and Chiles supporter reviewed Mrs. Nelson's case and said there was nothing Chiles could do to bring about the killer's sentence.

In the ad, Mrs. Nelson is shown in the kitchen of her Pinellas County home talking about the death of her daughter, Elisa, in November 1980.

"Fourteen years ago, my daughter rode off to school on her bicycle," she says. "She never came back. Her killer is still on death row, and we're still waiting for justice. We won't get it from Lawton Chiles because he's too liberal on crime."

She says Chiles released prisoners early and signed fewer death warrants than his predecessors. "I know Jeb Bush," she says. "He'll make prisoners serve their sentences and enforce the death penalty. Lawton Chiles won't."

Bush said the ad does not imply that Chiles could have done anything in this particular case, but instead focuses on the issue of public safety.

"It's powerful; it's not distasteful," he said. "The governor has redefined how the campaign was moving with unfounded attacks on my integrity. This commercial puts the campaign back on the issues."

The ad also is an attempt to use the death penalty to win the governor's office, a time-honored tactic in Florida. Bob Martinez used the issue against Democrat Steve Pajcic in 1986 and won. But he lost in 1990 when he ran as Ted Bundy's executioner, using a heavy blast of 30-second spots.

That ad, showing Bundy's smirking face in a courtroom photo, angered the family of Margaret Bowman of St. Petersburg, one of Bundy's victims. Her father, Jack Bowman, tangled with the Martinez campaign in 1986 and 1990 over the Bundy ads, calling them "tacky, tawdry and painful."

In an interview Tuesday, Mrs. Nelson said Chiles' record on crime has been "a disaster" and that she thinks signing death warrants moves cases along.

In fact, signing death warrants prematurely slows executions, said Raymond Ehrlich, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court and a Chiles supporter. At the behest of Chiles' campaign Tuesday, he reviewed the appeals of Elisa Nelson's killer, Larry Eugene Mann.

"That's cruelty to get that woman out," Ehrlich said. "She thinks she's right. . . . In all deference to that kind lady, and I cry internally for her, she just happens to be dead wrong. There was nothing Chiles could have done within the constraints of the law that permitted him to sign a death warrant. He could have signed one, but they (courts) would have set it aside."

Most everyone agrees that long appeals are agonizing to victims' families and aggravating to citizens fed up with crime. But in Mann's case, like many others, a court made a decision that slowed things down. The federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the original death sentence in 1988 and sent the case back to the trial court in Pinellas. The death sentence was reimposed, and the case has gone on appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

Gov. Bob Graham signed a death warrant for Mann in January 1986, but Martinez didn't sign one. Chiles hasn't either, because Mann has not exhausted his appeals on the new death sentence.

"As a victims' advocate, I can tell you that premature warrants, those with little or no likelihood of being carried out, only add to the agony and suffering a victim's family and friends must endure," said Howard Greenstein, a victims' service coordinator from Miami.

Mrs. Nelson, a Bush campaign contributor, said she and her sister met Bush six weeks ago at a meet-the-candidate breakfast in Palm Harbor. Her sister handed Bush a pen set, urging him to use it to sign Mann's death warrant.

Bush said his campaign staff talked with Mrs. Nelson several times about whether she could make a TV ad without causing herself too much pain.

Mrs. Nelson has also written a letter to voters endorsing Bush. In it, she talks about her daughter's killing and the family's agony waiting for justice.

"Ten-year-old girls are a wondrous gift," she wrote. "They take ballet lessons, play little league baseball and go to gymnastics classes. . . . Fourteen years have passed, and my family has been to hell and back. We have repeatedly been victimized by a system that is out of control. We have had two trials. Elisa's killer has been sentenced to death three times now. We are beginning to think he will outlive us all."

Ehrlich said it would be crueler still to raise false hopes by signing a death warrant that won't be carried out.

"I feel sorry for the lady," he said. "I am critical of the misanthropes who are running the campaign who would put her in that posture."

_ Political Editor Ellen Debenport contributed to this report.