Condemned killer Larry Eugene Mann sits on death row awaiting execution for the 1980 slaying of 10-year-old Elisa Nelson in Palm Harbor.
Mann now has become famous, thanks to the perverse pathology of the political campaign in a state gripped by crime.
Mann is being called the Willie Horton of the 1994 campaign because of a political ad in which Elisa's mother blames Gov. Lawton Chiles for the delays in execution.
Republican challenger Jeb Bush has retreated from that message, acknowledging that signing a warrant now would not speed Mann's execution. But three days after the ad went up, Chiles was still counterpunching, hoping to turn an attack into an offensive strike of his own on the dominant crime issue.
A traveling road show held courtroom news conferences in Tampa and Orlando on Friday, with former Supreme Court justices and popular U.S. Sen. Bob Graham strongly defending Chiles' record on the death penalty.
"I am outraged that Jeb Bush would distort my record," Chiles said. "I am more outraged that he would use the grief of a mother in the loss of her daughter to say that I am not strong on the death penalty or that I would do anything to slow it down."
"We have a clear choice," said State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville. "We can make our decision based on rhetoric and demagoguery or base it on a sound record helpful to the criminal justice system. Gov. Chiles has given us effective leadership."
Graham, who signed the original (and only) death warrant in Mann's case, said Chiles has worked with the state Supreme Court, cutting the time for filing post-conviction appeals from two years to one. Graham said the rule changes sought by Chiles and adopted by the court have ensured that executions would take place in a "judicious and prudent" manner.
"The things for which he is being slanderously attacked are the very things that are going to sustain public support for the death penalty in this state and in the United States," he said.
Signing Mann's warrant now "will not speed execution by one day," said former Supreme Court Justice Alan Sundberg. "Anyone who suggests otherwise is either profoundly uninformed or is engaged in the basest kind of demagoguery."
The campaigns jousted over Bush's assertion that he could reduce delays by cutting out post-conviction review of capital cases in state courts and letting only federal courts handle those appeals.
In an instant response to Chiles' news conference Friday morning in Tampa, a Bush volunteer handed out a statement announcing support for Bush's "one trial, one appeal plan." His proposal was endorsed by former U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, who was appointed by Bush's father, and five state attorneys including Republican Bernie McCabe of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit.
Sundberg said Bush's idea would cause even more delays because overburdened federal courts would have no state appeals court record to review and would demand further hearings of new evidence or new claims.
Elisa Nelson was kidnapped and murdered in 1980. The television ad shows the young girl in a Little League picture and features her mother, Wendy Nelson, talking about the long agonizing wait for justice. She said when she met Bush a few weeks ago her sister handed him a pen set and asked him to use it to sign Mann's death warrant.