Crime

Florida executes killer 30 years after four murders

STARKE -- The state of Florida executed Jerry Correll, 59, by lethal injection early Thursday evening. He was convicted in the 1985 stabbing deaths of his 5-year-old daughter, ex-wife and his ex-wife's sister and mother.

The U.S. Supreme Court majority rejected without comment Correll's request for a stay at 6:40 p.m. Thursday, 40 minutes after the execution was scheduled.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying Correll's execution should be delayed while the court decides whether Florida's capital punishment system is constitutional. The system says the jury's vote on whether to impose a death sentence is only advisory with the judge making the final decision.

Breyer also said keeping a prisoner on death row for 30 years constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Correll was found guilty and sentenced to death for killing his former wife Susan Correll; their 5-year-old daughter, Tuesday; Susan Correll's mother, Mary Lou Hines; and Susan Correll's sister Marybeth Jones.

Five hours before Correll was scheduled to die, the grounds outside Florida State Prison were quiet.

No protests, no prayer vigils -- though both were expected as the scheduled 6 p.m. execution approached.

Correll's was the first execution in the state in nine months, put off in February by the Florida Supreme Court while federal justices considered a case that could rule the state's lethal injections unconstitutional. Now, with that case finished, Gov. Rick Scott ordered that Correll be put to death.

Correll's death was the 22nd in the death chamber at Florida State Prison since Scott took office in 2011, more than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated in Florida in 1976. Jeb Bush ordered 21 in his eight years in office and Charlie Crist ordered just five.

"It's his solemn duty to uphold the law and his foremost concern is always for the victims and their families," said Jackie Schutz, Scott's spokeswoman.

During the execution, Correll was allowed to have a lawyer and a spiritual representative in the adjacent room where witnesses can observe his final moments and hear his last words. Family members of victims are also allowed to attend, although the Department of Corrections would not release a list of who has been approved to witness the execution.

The Florida Supreme Court delayed Correll's earlier-scheduled execution in February pending a federal death-penalty case, but they declined to do so again.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has opposed any delays, filing documents with the court arguing the state is on solid legal ground. On Tuesday, she said "the courts have ruled in our favor in the past on this very issue" and called Correll's crime a "horrible, horrible murder."

"We're not going to let anybody be executed that we feel isn't warranted by our laws," Bondi said.

Still, Correll's execution was concerning to opponents of the death penalty, many of whom planned to gather across the highway from the prison Thursday evening.

With the U.S. Supreme Court planning to rule on Florida's death penalty sentencing -- this is the only state where a judge issues a death sentence based on the suggestion of a jury that need not be unanimous -- critics said now was not the time to move ahead with an execution. Because Correll's death sentence could be sent back to a jury if the U.S. Supreme Court rules against the state in that case, one of Correll's attorneys, Maria DeLiberato said she was surprised the execution wasn't delayed by a lower court.

"It certainly was a surprise to us," she said. "We certainly thought they would recognize the significance of the Hurst case and how it potentially affects Florida's death penalty."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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