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    Death case to go back to a jury

    The ruling sparks a review of Hillsborough death penalty cases during a judge's tenure.

    By DAVID KARP

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


    TAMPA -- The governor had signed Wayne Tompkins' death warrant, and the calendar showed he had two weeks to live.

    But on Wednesday, Tompkins got an extension on life.

    Circuit Judge Daniel Perry put a hold on Tompkins' scheduled death by lethal injection May 1 and ordered a new sentencing hearing. Tompkins, 44, will now get another chance to convince a jury that he should be allowed to live, even though a jury convicted him of killing a 15-year-old Tampa girl.

    Tompkins' mother fell into a relative's arms outside the courtroom after Perry ordered the new sentencing, which may not take place for months.

    The delay, 16 years after Tompkins' first sentencing, happened because Harry Lee Coe, a circuit judge in 1985, made mistakes in sentencing Tompkins to death.

    Coe did not wait for jurors to leave the jury box before imposing the death sentence on Tompkins, according to prosecutor Mike Benito. Days later, he asked the prosecutor to prepare Tompkins' sentencing order rather than prepare it himself, as judges should.

    Tompkins' death penalty attorney, Martin McClain, convinced a judge Wednesday that Coe's reliance on the prosecutor to draft the sentencing order amounted to an improper communication between the judge and the prosecutor that violated the law and undermined the court system's promise of fairness.

    "It goes toward the confidence the public has in the system," said McClain, an attorney with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, a state agency that represents death row inmates.

    The Florida Supreme Court also ruled in 1995 that judges themselves must weigh the factors for and against the death penalty before imposing it. The death penalty was considered so serious a punishment that judges couldn't delegate deliberations to someone else, as Coe had done.

    Coe, who earned the nickname "Hanging Harry" during his 22 years on the bench, was known for handing out harsh sentences quickly. His decisions were also regularly overturned on appeal, delaying a case's outcome for years.

    Benito said it was common practice for Coe, who committed suicide last year, to ask a prosecutor to draft sentencing orders.

    On Wednesday, prosecutors began reviewing every death penalty case in Hillsborough during Coe's tenure as a judge to see whether other sentences might be jeopardized.

    Benito said Tuesday that it was "ludicrous" that Tompkins would get another sentencing hearing because of the procedural mistake. Lawyers for the Attorney General's Office also argued that Coe's error was meaningless.

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