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Florida set to execute man tomorrow despite lawyer missing key appeal deadline

Paul Howell would be first Florida death row inmate to be executed without a federal judicial review

The US state of Florida should halt the execution of a man denied a federal review of his appeal claims because his lawyer missed a filing deadline, said Amnesty International.

Paul Howell, 47, is due to be put to death at 6pm local time tomorrow (Tuesday 26 February) for the murder of a police officer in 1992. On 19 February, the Florida Supreme Court refused to stay the execution.

Howell’s current lawyers continue to press for a court to block the execution so that they can present evidence that he received poor legal representation at his trial - his attorney had an apparent conflict of interest. Then - to add insult to injury - the case was not reviewed by a federal court because a subsequent lawyer filed an appeal too late.

If executed, Howell would be the first Florida death row inmate to be put to death without a federal judicial review of the merits of his claims.

Amnesty International USA researcher Rob Freer said:

“While Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases, even supporters of this punishment should be concerned by the questions being raised about the quality of the legal representation this capital defendant received at trial and on appeal.”

In February 1992 Paul Howell was charged with the murder of Florida State Trooper Jimmy Fulford, who was killed when a bomb made by Howell exploded. At the same time Howell faced separate charges under a federal drug conspiracy law. Although the same defence lawyer was appointed for both cases, he subsequently withdrew from the federal drugs case saying that his wife had received a threatening phone call.

Prejudicial comments made by the lawyer about his client in federal court - he said he believed that Howell would be convicted and that he was involved in the threatening phone call - were later cited by the prosecution when they sought to have the attorney disqualified from the murder case. The judge refused and the lawyer went on to represent Howell at trial without a co-counsel - someone usually responsible in capital cases for preparing evidence in the penalty phase while the first attorney prepares for the guilt phase of the trial.

Howell was convicted - with the jury voting 10-2 - and sentenced to death on 10 January 1995.

According to his current lawyers, Howell was sentenced without any substantive investigation into his background which would have brought to the surface a series of mitigating factors a jury should have heard before making its life or death decision. The current lawyers want to raise information not fully presented to the jury, including evidence that Howell suffers from brain damage due to head injuries and exposure to pesticides when he was a child, chemicals since banned in the USA. 

They also have evidence that he suffered extensive childhood abuse in Jamaica where he was born and grew up. Two experts who have reviewed the case have concluded that this abuse may have resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder. His lawyers also point to the symptoms of mental illness, including auditory hallucinations developed when Howell served in the US military as a young man. The crime for which he is on death row was committed a year after he was discharged from the military.

The lawyer appointed to represent Howell on appeal missed a one-year deadline under US law to file a habeas corpus petition in federal court. In late 2004, the US District Court ruled that there were no “extraordinary circumstances” excusing this late filing and dismissed the petition. The petition had raised claims of ineffective legal representation based on the trial counsel’s conflict of interest, but failed to allege any of the mitigating evidence that his current counsel are seeking to present. In 2005, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed the District Court decision and in 2006 the US Supreme Court declined to take the case.

Since 2007, four states in the USA have legislated to abolish the death penalty as public concern about this punishment has grown. There is the possibility that Maryland could become the 18th abolitionist state in the USA in the coming weeks.

Amnesty believes that such developments throw into even starker relief the stance of those states in the USA that continue to execute. While death sentences in the USA have been in decline in recent years - falling by two thirds from the peak in the 1990s - Florida is one state that is bucking this trend. There were 22 death sentences handed down in the state last year, more than in any year since 1998.

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