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    Resentencing ordered on eve of execution

    Gregory Mills was due to die tonight, but a judge stays the execution after questions are raised about a key witness.

    By TAMARA LUSH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2001


    STARKE -- A circuit judge halted the execution of convicted murderer Gregory Mills on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after the death row inmate had placed his order for a final meal of fried shrimp, spicy fried chicken and Coca-Cola.

    Mills, convicted in the 1979 shooting death of an elderly man in Sanford, was scheduled to die tonight by lethal injection. The state put the execution on hold after Circuit Judge O.H. Eaton Jr. ruled that Mills should be resentenced.

    Eaton called Mills' situation "a troublesome case" that involves new questions about the credibility of a key witness. Eaton said that evidence recently presented by Mills' lawyers raised questions as to whether he was the shooter during the botched burglary on May 25, 1979.

    One other point troubled Eaton: the trial judge's decision back in 1979 to override the jury's recommendation. The jury that convicted Mills recommended that he serve life in prison.

    "It is highly unlikely that this court would have overridden the jury's recommendation had the verdict been returned today," Eaton wrote. "It is highly unlikely that the trial judge's sentencing order would have been accepted as sufficient today."

    Just four Florida inmates have been executed in so called "jury override" cases since the state reinstituted the death penalty. The state has executed 51 people since 1979.

    Mills' lawyer, Todd Scher, said he and his client are thrilled with Eaton's ruling.

    "It shows that the jury had it right back in 1979," Scher said.

    For Mills, the ruling means that he will be spared the death penalty -- for now. Depending on whether the state decides to appeal Eaton's ruling, the case could be bogged down in court hearings for years to come.

    Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Nunnelley could not be reached for comment on the ruling.

    Mills, 43, is one of the longest serving death row inmates in Florida. Only 10 of the 371 people on death row have been there longer.

    The murder Mills is convicted of committing occurred on May 25, 1979 -- the same day John Spenkelink became the first inmate executed in Florida since the state reinstated the death penalty.

    Mills, who had a long arrest record, broke into the Sanford home of James and Margaret Wright with a friend. Mills and Vincent Ashley intended to burglarize the home, but 70-year-old James Wright emerged from the bedroom when he heard noises.

    Wright was shot with a .410-caliber shotgun and died. The retired Fuller Brush salesman and his wife, a retired schoolteacher, were well known in the community and lived in the city's affluent neighborhood.

    "This case affected our community a lot," said Seminole County sheriff's Detective Ray Bronson, who investigated the Wright murder as a Sanford policeman. "My feeling is, it's time for Mr. Mills to accept responsibility for what occurred."

    But Scher, Mills' lawyer, said Mills' 1979 conviction relied on one unreliable man: Vincent Ashley.

    As the star witness at the trial, Ashley was given complete immunity in exchange for testifying against Mills. In his ruling Tuesday, Eaton said Ashley was not credible.

    "This witness is possibly the least credible witness that has ever appeared before this court," Eaton said. "It is apparent that this witness will not tell the truth and will in fact say anything that benefits him."

    Ashley told another inmate that he pulled the trigger on Wright, Eaton said.

    The judge also said the first trial judge in the case was wrong to allow the state Attorney's Office to draft an order denying Mills an appeal a decade after he was convicted.

    Eaton said he would set a resentencing hearing later.

    Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a motion by Mills to revisit a Florida Supreme Court ruling on his case. That decision has no bearing on Eaton's ruling, Scher said.

    On Tuesday, Mills was scheduled to meet with reporters at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, but the interview was called off.

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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