Execution of murderer raises new questions about the death penalty in Florida

February 25, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- The execution of Paul Augustus Howell scheduled for Tuesday has put Florida’s death penalty process under the microscope again.

Howell, 42, was convicted in 1992 of the pipe-bomb killing of Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jimmy Fulford in Jefferson County, east of Tallahassee. If he dies by lethal injection as scheduled, his attorneys say, he will be the first Florida inmate to die without his case having been reviewed in federal court under a habeas corpus appeal. They argue Howell deserves that review — and a chance to seek another trial.

They say the court never heard about the conflict of interest involving his trial attorney, the failure to tell the court of Howell’s brain damage, his paranoia, child abuse or his lost court files. And the court never heard about Howell’s inadequate representation from the appellate lawyer who missed a crucial deadline for his federal review.

“Lawyers who never met the client in the 13 years they represented him lost his records in a flood and haven’t asked for new ones,” said Sonya Rudenstine of Gainesville, a new attorney hired by the inmate’s family. “If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a comedy of errors.”

The Florida Supreme Court rejected an appeal last week by Howell’s new attorneys. The court said it could not address claims he may raise in federal court. His attorneys have filed a new request in federal court in Tallahassee.

The habeas corpus review is routine in death-penalty cases in which the federal government provides inmates with an experienced, federally funded lawyer to have his case presented before a federal court as a final layer of protection before execution.

Howell’s last-minute appeal for more time comes as the Florida Legislature is moving in the other direction — toward limiting the time inmates should have to get their cases reviewed.

A bill being pushed through the Florida House by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, would accelerate the time it takes to execute death row inmates in Florida by an estimated five years.

According to Gaetz, inmates spend an average of 14 years on death row before they are executed. His bill would not only limit the time state courts have to review the cases, it would ban any lawyer deemed ineffective by the court from taking a capital case for five years.

Without that, Gaetz argues, death penalty opponents will continue to have a compelling argument “that the punishment costs too much and doesn’t effectively deter crime.”

Howell, a member of a Jamaican drug posse, was convicted after building a pipe bomb to kill a Jackson County woman who had information that could link him to a drug-related murder in South Florida. He hid the bomb in a gift-wrapped microwave oven and had a driver deliver it.

As the car was traveling through Jefferson County, Trooper Fulford stopped it for speeding. He then inspected the vehicle, unwrapped the microwave oven and the bomb exploded, killing him.

Howell’s attorneys now want the court to recognize that he never should have been represented in the first case by his attorney, Frank Sheffield, who is now a state court judge in Jefferson County.

When Howell faced state murder charges, he was already under indictment in a federal trial for drug trafficking. Sheffield represented him in the case, but withdrew after his secretary, who was also his wife, told prosecutors she had received a telephone call from an anonymous caller who told her that “If Paul Howell goes down, Mr. Sheffield is going down also.”

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