Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times has a write-up of the latest attempts to save Paul Augustus Howell from his scheduled execution on Feb. 26. I’ve posted the article below, but you can view the original here.
MIAMI — Lawyers for a man scheduled to be executed in Florida on Feb. 26 for killing a state trooper filed a motion in federal court on Wednesday arguing that the prisoner had been wrongly denied his final appeal because of a missed filing deadline.
If Paul Augustus Howell, 47, is executed next week, he would become the first Florida inmate to die by lethal injection without receiving his final federal appeal, called a habeas petition, since 2008. That year, the United States Supreme Court stated that a lawyer’s misconduct or “gross negligence” may be enough to override the one-year filing deadline for final federal appeal under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
Mr. Howell’s lawyers say that his original trial lawyer had a “substantial conflict of interest,” that began with a reported death threat. An additional 30 Florida inmates on death row have also missed federal habeas petition filing deadlines and could face similar situations when their execution dates arrive.
On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court rejected Mr. Howell’s appeal and his request for a stay of execution. The justices said they could not address claims that Mr. Howell may raise in federal court.
Michael Ufferman, one of Mr. Howell’s new appellate lawyers, said executing someone before Mr. Howell, or any other offender, received a habeas review was not a precedent that Rick Scott, the Florida governor, should set.
“He has never had the opportunity to have this issue reviewed in federal court,” Mr. Ufferman said. “We are pushing that issue with the governor’s office.”
Mr. Howell was convicted in a 1992 pipe-bomb killing of a Florida state trooper, Jimmy Fulford. Mr. Fulford had stopped a car, later traced to Mr. Howell, that contained a microwave oven with a pipe-bomb inside that Mr. Howell had made, prosecutors said. The bomb was meant for a woman with information on a South Florida drug ring. When Mr. Fulford tried to open the package, it exploded.
But before Mr. Howell faced state murder charges for killing the trooper, he was a defendant in a federal trial for drug trafficking in an unrelated case. His lawyer in the federal trial, Frank Sheffield, now a state court judge, withdrew from the case after his secretary, who was also his wife, said he received a death threat by telephone. She said an anonymous caller asked if he could leave Mr. Sheffield a message: “If Paul Howell goes down, Mr. Sheffield is going down also.”
Mr. Howell was convicted on the drug charges and sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Sheffield decided to represent Mr. Howell in the murder case, despite a request by prosecutors that he be removed from it. A state judge allowed Mr. Sheffield to continue to represent Mr. Howell. Mr. Howell’s appellate lawyers say that Mr. Sheffield’s continued representation posed a conflict, and is grounds for a habeas review.
After Mr. Howell’s conviction, one of his court-appointed lawyers missed a filing deadline that would have allowed him to appear in federal court for this last appeal. The habeas review is routine in death-penalty cases, and provides inmates with a final layer of protection.
“In light of the Supreme Court case, they should reopen and reconsider the dismissal of Mr. Howell’s federal habeas petition for being untimely,” Mr. Ufferman said of his motion before the federal court in Tallahassee.
Richard Dieter, the executive director at the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks executions around the country, said the 2008 Supreme Court decision opened the door for cases like Mr. Howell’s.
“That’s a pretty glaring conflict of interest,” Mr. Dieter said, calling it a “reasonable claim.”
“You have to wonder if there was even a basic representation,” he added.
The court’s ruling remains relatively untested, Mr. Dieter said, and the law is not yet well defined. The United States Supreme Court is expected to hear a similar case out of Texas next week.