After Almost 30 Years, Florida Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence in Case "Rife with Misconduct"

On January 14, and almost 30 years after the crime, the Florida Supreme Court criticized the state for “lawless conduct” and vacated the death sentence of Paul Beasley Johnson because “the record here is so rife with evidence of previously undisclosed prosecutorial misconduct that we have no choice but to grant relief.” Because of popular sentiment and the notoriety of the crime, Governor Charlie Crist signed a death warrant for Johnson in 2009 even though Johnson’s legal issues were still pending on appeal. The Florida Court said that the governor’s action put them in a difficult position. Johnson was found guilty of the murder of a Polk County sheriff’s deputy and two others in January of 1981. The state induced Johnson to make incriminating statements to a jailhouse informant, then used the testimony at his trial, even though they knew it was inadmissible. Former assistant state attorney Hardy Pickard, who was the original prosecutor in Johnson’s case, was aware that the informant was acting on behalf of the sheriff’s investigator despite the claim that the informant acted on his own. Even though the informant’s testimony was initially suppressed, Pickard used false testimony and misleading argument to allow the informant to testify. Commenting on the state’s behavior, the Florida Court wrote, “It must be emphasized that in our American legal system there is no room for such misconduct, no matter how disturbing a crime may be or how unsympathetic a defendant is. Lawlessness by a defendant never justifies lawless conduct at trial.”

(C. Jenkins, “Court vacates death rulings,” St. Petersburg Times, January 14, 2010). See also Arbitrariness.