Family of trooper wants justice served

bconklin@bradenton.comOctober 11, 2009 

For Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeff Young, it was a textbook traffic stop.

He pulled over a vehicle and asked the driver, Daniel Burns Jr., to step outside. He searched the vehicle and found cocaine.

That’s where the story went from methodical to horrific.

According to numerous eyewitness accounts, Burns wrestled Young to the ground, grabbed the trooper’s gun and aimed at his head.

On his knees, begging for mercy — near the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River that now bears his name — Young was shot and killed, point-blank in the face. The bullet deflected off his wedding band.

That was Aug. 18, 1987.

More than 22 years later, a convicted Burns remains a resident of death row in Florida State Prison near Starke.

Appeal after appeal has been filed. Appeal after appeal has been denied. Burns’ lawyers have taken the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, filing a petition of review that was denied in February 1998. The most recent appeal was denied by the Florida Supreme Court in January.

Enough is enough, says Young’s family. The long, drawn-out process has sparked an online petition pressuring Gov. Charlie Crist to sign Burns’ death warrant.

More than 1,200 people, including Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube, had signed it as of Saturday night.

“Twenty-two years on death row? This appeals process is a farce,” said Young’s half-brother, David Smith, a retired Manatee County Sheriff’s Office sergeant.

“All these prisoners do is sit up there and do nothing. It seems like it goes on and on and on. It’s to the point where we’re not resigned to the fact that he’ll die in prison, we’re still hoping he’ll get executed.”

Setting wheels in motion

When Debbie Smith saw a news report last week about Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd spurring the governor to sign a death warrant with the help of an online petition, she went to GoPetition.com to start her own.

Smith, a supervisor with the child protection division of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, is Young’s niece and David Smith’s daughter.

At the time of her uncle’s murder, Smith was a 20-year-old college student at Florida State University in Tallahassee. She’ll never forget her parents calling with the news.

“I was devastated,” she said in an interview with the Herald.

More than 22 years later, those feelings have mixed with anger.

“It’s been tough thinking that he (Burns) is on death row getting three meals a day and air-conditioning,” she said.

With the online petition comes a renewed hope that justice might some day soon be served. Smith says she’s told “everyone” about it. Once it registers about 2,000 signatures, she’ll try to get in touch with the governor’s office.

“We, the undersigned, ask Gov. Charlie Crist to expedite this case and sign the death warrant for Daniel Burns,” the petition reads at its URL address (http://www.gopetition.com/online/31268.html).

Steube has put his full support behind the petition.

“I agree with it,” he said. “I signed it. It’s been too long, and if you are a believer in the death penalty, then you should also believe the penalty should be taken care of as soon as possible.”

As of Saturday, there were 385 men and one woman on death row in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

Paul Beasley Johnson, of that Polk County case, has been on death row at Florida State Prison for 28 years. He killed a deputy and two others in 1981.

“It’s time for the death sentence to be carried out,” Judd told The Associated Press. “The bottom line is that Paul Beasley Johnson committed cold, calculated, atrocious murders.”

Crist signed Johnson’s death warrant Wednesday, scheduling Johnson’s execution for Nov. 4.

Manatee County Commissioner Ron Getman hopes the same fate awaits Burns.

For Getman, this is personal. He was Young’s supervising Troop F commander at the time of his death.

“It’s been very frustrating in that he was convicted and he was convicted again. And he lost his appeals and they keep appealing,” he said. “It just seems like it never ends. ...

“He should be shown no mercy.”

Phone messages left seeking comment from the governor’s press office and Burns’ current attorney, Mark Gruber, of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, were not returned as of Saturday night.

— Beth Burger, Herald Staff Writer, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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