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Rolling will die, then what?

He’ll be the third inmate to die in 35 days, but that pace likely won’t continue.

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
Published October 25, 2006


STARKE — Florida’s death chamber likely will claim its most infamous killer since Ted Bundy this evening with the execution of Danny Rolling, who murdered five Gainesville students 16 years ago.

Rolling’s death will cap a tumultuous two years for Florida’s death penalty, which has endured criticism from lawyers, politicians and the Florida Supreme Court. It was stalled for much of this year while a condemned inmate took an appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After an 18-month hiatus, the state resumed executions this fall and Rolling will be the third inmate to die in five weeks. Not since four inmates were executed within nine days in 1998 has the state’s death penalty moved with such speed.

But will that pace continue? Will the state begin to effectively empty a death row that has swelled to 376 people while averaging less than three executions per year over the last decade?

The short answer: probably not.

“We always get these little flurries,” said Carolyn Snurkowski, a longtime death penalty lawyer for the state Attorney General’s Office. “And (people say) it’s always the end of the death penalty or the beginning of a ton of (executions) going through. And I’ve never seen either of those things happen.”

• • •

Danny Rolling has spent 12 years on death row, about average for the 61 people executed in Florida.

Rolling raped, mutilated and posed some of the five victims he killed in Gainesville in 1990.

He later was arrested for robbing an Ocala supermarket. Police learned he was a suspect in a similar murder in Louisiana, then matched his DNA to the Gainesville crime scenes.

Rolling pleaded guilty to the murders, after which a jury unanimously voted for execution. Rolling did not have much grounds to appeal.

Still, even the thinnest of death row appeals take years. The cases are automatically reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court, and the condemned are afforded appeals to the federal courts as well.

While death penalty supporters have tried to limit these appeals, opponents point to one statistic to reinforce their importance: Twenty-two Florida death row inmates have been exonerated during the appeals process. That’s more than any other state.

Rolling’s appellate lawyer, Baya Harrison III, tried to follow the path of two other inmates who won stays this year because of issues surrounding lethal injection. But once those issues were resolved, both those inmates, Clarence Hill and Arthur Rutherford, were executed.

Harrison acknowledged Rolling has little fight left and likely will die tonight. He said Rolling not only has accepted that, but believes he deserves it.

Said Harrison: “He told me, 'I have kind of a relationship with my maker. But I don’t think even a merciful God is going to cut me some slack.’”

• • •

Rolling’s will be the most celebrated execution in years, but even the most high-profile executions can’t cure the death penalty’s ills.

The problem, many legal experts say, is that Florida’s death penalty law simply scoops up too many people, clogging the system.

For every Rolling, there are dozens of other killers who committed crimes that, though atrocious, don’t require the ultimate punishment, said Michael Mello, a University of Vermont law professor who worked as an appellate lawyer for Ted Bundy.

“We have this system in the first place because we want to kill the Bundys and kill the Danny Rollings,” he said.

“But lo and behold, we end up killing others.”

Unlike each of the other 37 states with the death penalty, Florida juries aren’t required to unanimously agree. Only a majority is required to vote for death.

In an opinion last year, the Florida Supreme Court urged lawmakers to change death penalty law so that only unanimous juries can sentence someone to death. Lawmakers didn’t listen.

This year, the American Bar Association issued a report that criticized Florida’s death penalty on many fronts, including the unanimous jury issue.

“The (Rolling) execution should not dissipate concerns over the major flaws in the system,” said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor who led the team that issued the ABA report. “This is just a blip on the screen. It’s going to continue as business as usual with very few executions, partly because … there are legitimate concerns about who deserves to be put to death.”

• • •

Gov. Jeb Bush hasn’t signed any death warrants beyond Rolling’s, though he said Tuesday that he is reviewing a couple of other cases to see whether all the appeals have been exhausted, making them ready for execution.
If Rolling is executed tonight, his will be the 20th execution under Bush’s watch. That’s almost a third of the 62 executions since the state reinstalled the death penalty in 1979.

But a number of inmates gave up their appeals during the Bush administration and were executed voluntarily. In fact, six of the last 11 people executed in the state were volunteers.

For those who did not go voluntarily, the process often proves long and arduous. Bush blames the courts.
“I think the judiciary … in general have been slow to handle their part of this,” he said.

But defense lawyers say the system’s flaws — and lawmakers’ unwillingness to fix them — give them ammunition to muster their appeals.

“The problem isn’t lawyers throwing monkey wrenches, the problem is the death penalty itself,” said Martin McClain, who has represented more than 100 death row inmates. “The death penalty is a government program. And like any government program, reliability is an issue.”

Robert Batey, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law, said a number of issues — be it lethal injection protocol or the unanimous jury issue — will continue to slow the process down.

“I would never predict that anything with regard to the death penalty is going to be smooth,” Batey said. “Undoubtedly, there will be other issues that come up.”

- Times research staff contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at tisch@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2359.