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His wish: a long, comfy life on death row. Would justice oblige?

In October, a second jury convicted Fitzpatrick of murder. Fitzpatrick had a chance to persuade the jury that, this time, he should be spared from a death sentence.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published March 17, 2007


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LARGO - Paul John Fitzpatrick says he feels most alive on death row.

Fitzpatrick sat there for three years before the Florida Supreme Court granted him a new trial.

In October, a second jury convicted Fitzpatrick of murder. Fitzpatrick had a chance to persuade the jury that, this time, he should be spared from a death sentence.

Instead, Fitzpatrick fired his lawyers and asked jurors to review gruesome crime scene photos before they recommended whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

Fitzpatrick told Judge Dee Anna Farnell that he would be more comfortable on death row, where - except for a few hours a week - inmates are kept in solitary cells where they can smoke. Unlike other inmates, they also can buy small televisions.

Fitzpatrick, 49, feared that if he were sentenced to life in prison, he would be placed among younger inmates who would bother him.

"It's just a hell of a lot easier time doing time with murderers than it is with fools," Fitzpatrick told the judge.

Fitzpatrick, who maintains he is innocent, also knew he would get more appeals if he received the death penalty. Lifers only can make limited appeals.

Fitzpatrick also knew that executions take time. He was more likely to die of natural causes than face the executioner.

He told the judge: "I can be alive on death row."

The jury recommended a death sentence by an 8-4 vote.

Judge Farnell had to decide whether to give a murderer his wish.

* * *

Fitzpatrick's case was unusual from the start.

On Feb. 8, 1980, a mail carrier found Gerald Hollinger dead in his Belleair home. Hollinger was an art teacher and a gay man who sometimes invited men home with him.

Hollinger had been stabbed 41 times with a butcher knife from his kitchen. His throat was cut.

Though fingerprints were found in the home, the case went unsolved for 15 years.

Veteran sheriff's detective Mike Ring picked up the case in 1995. A one-time resident of Massachusetts, Ring noticed that a receipt from a Tampa hotel found in Hollinger's home had a fake driver's license number that appeared to be a Social Security number from that state.

On a hunch, Ring shipped fingerprints found in Hollinger's home to Massachusetts, where investigators matched them to Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick had attacked another gay man in that state just days before Hollinger's murder. Fitzpatrick stole the man's car and drove it to Tampa.

Fitzpatrick was charged with Hollinger's murder.

Four years later, a jury convicted Fitzpatrick and recommended by an 8-4 vote that he receive the death penalty. Judge Lauren Laughlin agreed, calling the murder particularly cruel and atrocious.

But three years later, the state high court said Fitzpatrick deserved a new trial because the judge had allowed prosecutors to tell jurors the murder occurred during a burglary, when there was evidence Hollinger had invited Fitzpatrick inside.

By this time, Fitzpatrick had grown to like death row. He worked out in his cell. He made friends with the fellow condemned. He read books and enjoyed the silence at night.

"I probably found the most peace I've ever had in my whole life on death row," he later told Judge Farnell. "It's the calmest place I've ever been."

* * *

Fitzpatrick was shipped back to Pinellas County for his second trial. Last October, a second jury again convicted Fitzpatrick.

The assistant public defenders assigned to his case are required to try to save their clients from death row.

So after he was convicted, Fitzpatrick fired them.

He could have offered jurors at least five legal reasons - called mitigators - that he should be spared from death row, including his young age at the time of the murder and his troubled childhood.

But Fitzpatrick declined. He only asked the jury to view the gory crime scene photos. He even suggested to the judge that if he got life, he might kill someone in prison.

After 45 minutes of deliberations, the jury came back with an 8-4 vote for death.

* * *

Fitzpatrick knew the score.

There are 374 people on death row in Florida. Since 1976, Florida has averaged about two executions per year. At that rate, most death row inmates will die before they are executed.

"I'm going to be an old man before I go," he told the judge, later adding: "I'll be about 75 by the time they decide to carry anything out."

Fitzpatrick asked Farnell to follow the jury's recommendation. In Florida, it's rare for a judge to go against a jury's advice.

* * *

At a recent judicial conference, Farnell learned of a precedent: Judges don't have to give a jury's recommendation as much weight if the defendant didn't present any mitigating testimony on his behalf.

Within that decision, Farnell found a way not to give Fitzpatrick what he wanted.

But if Farnell sentenced him to life, it had to be under sentencing laws that were in place when the crime occurred in 1980.

In those days, someone sentenced to life in prison could petition for parole after 25 years. Today, no parole is allowed in cases like Fitzpatrick's.

Because Fitzpatrick had already served about 12 years since his arrest, he would become eligible for parole in about 13 years. Fitzpatrick would be 62.

At a sentencing hearing last week, Farnell told Fitzpatrick that his case was not aggravated or unmitigated enough to require a death sentence.

"You should lose your liberty but not your life," she told him.

The sentence was bittersweet for Fitzpatrick's lawyers, who don't believe Fitzpatrick will get out on parole.

"It was what we as attorneys wanted to see happen, but it's not what he wants," said assistant public defender Kandice Friesen. "It's one of the most interesting cases I've ever had."

[Last modified March 17, 2007, 01:53:32]


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