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Jeb Bush plays the death card

Published Oct. 8, 2005

On his way to winning the 1966 governor's race, Claude R. Kirk Jr., toured Florida State Prison, shook hands with the 52 men on death row, and said he wouldn't shrink from executing them all.

Kirk was showboating, but at least the death penalty was a legitimate issue that year. His Democratic opponent wanted to repeal it.

It should not be an issue in the 1994 campaign. Gov. Lawton Chiles supports capital punishment. He has sent eight men to the electric chair and has set a ninth execution for Nov. 16, which would match the mark of his predecessor, Bob Martinez. What's more, he's saved the state time and money by reserving his warrants for death row inmates who have used up their allotted state and federal appeals.

But logic does not stop unscrupulous politicians like Jeb Bush from playing the death card. Don't count executions, says Bush. Count death warrants. Martinez signed 139. Including the one still pending, Chiles has signed only 17. So he must be soft on killers.

Bush turned up the heat last week by playing on the grief of Wendy Nelson, a Tarpon Springs woman whose daughter was murdered 14 years ago by a man who is still on death row. In a mass-mailed letter and a TV spot purchased by the Bush campaign, she accused Chiles of refusing to sign death warrants for killers like her daughter's.

The truth _ as State Attorney Bernie McCabe and even Bush himself have confirmed _ is that there's nothing Chiles could have done so far to put Larry Eugene Mann in the electric chair any sooner. His appeals are still in progress. To sign his death warrant now would do nothing but give Nelson false hopes. If that kind of showboating would be Bush's style, it isn't Chiles'.

But while that difference should commend Chiles to intelligent voters, some brain-dead people will swallow Bush's swill. If this phony issue costs Chiles the election, Florida will have a new governor who is presumably ready to follow the example of Martinez and plaster the Capitol with 15 death warrants for every one the courts will let him carry out.

Bush has claimed Martinez was only following Gov. Bob Graham's example of signing warrants to force the courts to take up and dispose of appeals. But as Graham himself argued Friday in Chiles' behalf, the tactic became unnecessary in 1985, the year before Martinez was elected to succeed him, when the state Supreme Court set a deadline for attorneys to file for post-conviction relief.

Now while Bush might think he could sign warrants for all 349 people on death row before sitting down to his inaugural lunch, he'd find that 148 of their cases are still pending on first appeal before the Florida Supreme Court, as guaranteed by the state constitution. Another 147 habeas corpus cases are pending somewhere in the Florida courts under the second round of appeals that Bush proposes to abolish. But to do that, he'd have to restrict the constitutional right of habeas corpus for everyone convicted of crimes, which would force the overburdened federal courts to hear thousands more Florida cases and delay justice even longer. Even Martinez opposes that.

It may not have occurred to Bush, but Martinez's multiple death warrants did no favors for the families of victims.

"That's the irony," said Bobby Brochin, a Miami lawyer who spent a year handling death penalty issues for Chiles.

Brochin called me the other day, upset and angry at Bush's tactic. Chiles' policy, he said, "was largely instituted because of sensitivity to the victims themselves." There's stress in waiting out a warrant and a letdown when an execution is stayed, he said.

"It just tears me up to hear people talking about insensitivity to victims by not signing warrants, when signing warrants that will never be carried out is probably the greatest insensitivity," he said.

After talking with Brochin, I called Jack Bowman, who spent 11 years awaiting the execution of Theodore Bundy. Bowman's daughter, Margaret, was one of Bundy's victims. Bowman, who supports Chiles, seconded Brochin's remarks.

"You want it over with. You really want it over with and you can't imagine what a relief it is when it's finally over with, and I can sympathize with Wendy Nelson on that," he said, "but signing death warrants doesn't seem to get it and it just aggravates the problem for the victim. You just have to let the court process run itself."

That can't be shortened except by changes to federal habeas corpus jurisdiction "and that's not going to happen by Bush," Bowman added. "He is deceiving victims when he makes them think this thing can be carried out fast."

Bowman, who had denounced Martinez for 1990 campaign commercials capitalizing on Bundy's execution the year before, thinks no better of Bush for exploiting Wendy Nelson.

"I think it's tacky. I think it's tawdry," he said.". . . I'm kind of sick about this whole thing. I don't like a sound bite campaign and that's what Bush is running and nobody asks the tough questions."

Kirk, by the way, never got to sign a single death warrant.

He had also promised no new taxes, but wound up accepting the largest tax increase on record.

Bush reminds me a lot of Kirk.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.