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Execution halted

The witnesses for Thomas Provenzano's execution were seated. Two sons of one victim and another man Provenzano paralyzed waited together. Then came word. A stay, Provenzano's fifth, had been granted.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 2000


STARKE -- Strapped to the gurney with the needles fixed in his arms and a white hearse waiting for him outside, convicted murderer Thomas Provenzano was 11 minutes shy of execution Tuesday when he won another stay.

At 5:49 p.m., Florida State Prison warden James Crosby got word via telephone from the governor's office that a three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta had issued the stay.

Earlier Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court had denied stays and Gov. Jeb Bush had rejected an appeal for clemency made on the grounds that Provenzano is mentally ill.

Provenzano, 51, whose execution was delayed once in 1989 and four times last year -- twice within 24 hours of the appointed time -- was scheduled at 6 p.m. to become the state's fourth murderer die by lethal injection.

"I'm elated for my client," said Provenzano's lawyer, Michael Reiter, who had been sitting in the observation room with 28 other witnesses, waiting for the brown curtains to open and reveal the condemned man in his final minutes.

In the front row sat Gary and Bruce Dalton, sons of bailiff Harry Dalton, who was one of the three law officers gunned down in Provenzano's 1984 shooting rampage at the Orange County Courthouse. Behind them, in his wheelchair, sat Mark Parker, who has been paralyzed since a bullet from the crossfire severed his spine when he was a 19-year-old corrections deputy.

Tuesday morning, Provenzano had declined his last meal of a chicken-salad sandwich, cole slaw, three slices of bread, a cookie and tea. He also had refused to acknowledge two prison chaplains who came to comfort him in his cell.

As the clock ticked toward 6 p.m., both primary and back-up intravenous lines had been inserted in his arms without difficulty, said Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake, though the lines had not yet been hooked up to the lethal chemicals. Provenzano was waiting for the execution team to wheel him into the death chamber.

When the curtains to the chamber did not open at 6 p.m., witnesses began shifting their weight and whispering. Drake entered the room and summoned one of the witnesses, a victim coordinator from the governor's office, Tena Pate, out of the room.

At 6:05, he returned to ask the 12 media witnesses, along with Reiter, to leave the room. He assured Reiter that no harm had come to his client.

"I thought there may have been a problem of some sort," said Reiter, who says the Department of Corrections cruelly botched the execution of Bennie Demps on June 7 while struggling to find a vein.

The federal panel that issued the stay did not specify grounds for it.

"Apparently they need more time to review it," Reiter said, adding he had hoped for a stay earlier. "The wheels of justice are slow."

Gary Dalton, an Orange County sheriff's deputy who wore his uniform with a black band over his badge, said he will keep coming back until he sees his father's killer dead.

"(It was) very close this time," he said. "Maybe next time it'll happen." He added that after 16 years, "I think the process needs to be speeded up."

Parker, now 36, who rode to the prison from his home in Winter Garden, left the prison without talking to reporters. He previously had expressed dread at the thought of another stay. His sister, Colleen, 32, said, "He's just not interested in talking to anybody."

She added, "I'm heartbroken."

At least since 1997, said Drake, the Corrections spokesman, no condemned inmate has come so close to execution and received a stay.

Provenzano, whose supporters say he is too mentally ill to be executed, has said repeatedly that he believes he is Jesus Christ.

It is a claim he was making even before he entered the Orange County Courthouse in 1984 wearing a red bandana, army boots and a camouflage jacket that concealed a 12-gauge shotgun, a .38-caliber revolver, an assault rifle and ammo.

Provenzano shot Dalton, 53, who suffered brain damage and died of his injuries seven years later, as well as bailiff William Arnie Wilkerson, 60, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, who died there. Another of Provenzano's bullets left Parker permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Provenzano, who has equated his execution with Christ's crucifixion, originally was scheduled to go to Florida's electric chair last July, but his claim of insanity -- and legal attacks on the constitutionality of electrocution -- won him four stays last year.

By state law, condemned killers cannot be put to death unless they grasp what is going to happen and why. The state's switch to lethal injection and a trial judge's ruling in December that Provenzano is sane enough to be put to death despite his messianic delusions set the stage for Tuesday's planned execution.

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