Last week Florida's Governor Charlie Crist signed a "death warrant" on Paul Beasley Johnson, scheduling his execution for Wednesday November 4, 2009 at 6:00 PM. In Florida, all executions are carried out at Florida State Prison near Starke, Florida. Immediately upon signing this death warrant Paul was transferred from the main death row unit at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford to the maximum security Florida State Prison in the adjacent county of Bradford. In actuality these two prisons are practically side by side in the rural area outside of Starke, along Highway 16, separated only by a creek they call "new River", which coincidentally is also the county line separating Union County from Bradford County. From the window of the death row unit at Union Correctional i can look in the distance and actually see the imposing structure of Florida State Prison. But it's a sight I don't particularly care to see and don't make a habit of looking out to.
In 1981 Paul had killed a cop in Polk County, Florida (between Tampa and Orlando) as well as two others while wasted on the drug "crystal meth". At the time I lived in the area and am familiar with how the relatively small and rural farming communities there in Polk County had responded with outrage. It wasn't long before that incident that this same rural area was virtually terrorized by what was known as the "ski-mask" gang - one of the ringleaders of that, Daniel Thomas, was already put to death in Florida's electric chair in April, 1986. But the community didn't forget and in these farming towns the support for the death penalty is extremely high.
Anyone who wants to see how "justice" was served in Polk County back during that time need only read Barden v.Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1986) in which the Supreme Court addressed the facts of extreme prosecutional misconduct and judicial bias when Willie Barden was accused of a brutal crime in the same area. Barden, known to us as "Shargo", was executed in March, 1988 despite substantial evidence of actual innocence and what numerous Supreme Court Justices characterized as extremely prejudicial prosecural misconduct comparable to that fictionally depicted in "To kill a mocking bird".
In Paul's case, he never pled innocence. But the factual circumstances still warrant questioning the conviction and imposition of the ultimate punishment. There's no question that at the time of these murders Paul was wasted on a powerful drug commonly called "crystal meth", which if and when used to the extreme, such as in Paul's case, is known to cause psychotic and even violent paranoia and render the person's actions involuntary. So, the real question comes down to whether Paul actually intended to commit any act of violence resulting in these tragic deaths.
At trial, Paul's specific defense was insanity and the question came down to whether Paul could tell the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime, and possessed the mental capacity to form intent to commit the crime. The evidence, including numerous expert witnesses, testified that given the drugs that Paul was under and what many others witnessed in his behaviour, Paul was by definition "insane" and not responsible for his actions at the time.
Do we deliberately convict and condemn those who are insane? Under applicable law, we do not. Numerous Supreme Court cases consistently prohibit the execution of any person who is mentally incompetent or insane. In Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986) the Supreme Court defined this as a person "whose mental illness prevents him from comprehending the reasons for the penalty of death"
But when a defendant attempts to argue "insanity" as a defense then the burden of proving that he was actually "insane" at the time of the crime is on the defendant, and ultimately it is up to the jury to decide whether or not to ind him "not guilty" by reason of insanity. See Leland v. Oregon, 343 U,S. 790 (1952). With 3 victims - including a police officer, the jury was hardly sympathetic to Paul's argument and evidence that he had 'voluntarily" ingested massive amounts of crystal meth to the point of having an involuntary psychotic episode rendering him legally insane and thus not responsible for his actions. The jury rejected this insanity defense and sent him to death row.
That same year that Paul suffered his own drug induced psychotic breakdown resulting in the deaths of three people, the entire country was already outraged at the concept of an insanity defense as just a few months earlier the now infamous John Hinkley deliberately stalked, then shot, President Ronald Reagan on a sidewalk in Washington DC. At the same time Hinkley shot also several others, including a police officer, a secret service agent providing security for the President, and press secretary James Brady, who has since remained paralyzed.
But unlike Paul Johnson, John Hinkley came from a wealthy family and they quickly spent millions of dollars to hire the best lawyers and expert witnesses. Hinkley stood trial despite the fact that his crime was actually caught on camera with quite literally millions of people watching him gunning down the president and at least three others.
Money makes all the difference despite the overwhelming evidence against John Winkley, the jury in his case found him "not guilty" by reason of insanity. But Hinkley's insanity was not caused by toxic levels of alcohol or drugs - rather, Hinkley claimed that he was "intoxicated" to the point of psychosis by an even stronger influence - love. Hinkley convinced the jury that because of his "unrequited love" for actress Jodie Foster after seeing her portrait as a child prostitute in the movie "Taxi driver". Hinkley argued that to prove his love for Jodie Foster, he had to shoot the President and anyone else who got in his way.
But when Paul went to trial he was just another poor man defended by an overworked and underpaid court appointed lawyer. And thanks to Hinkley's widely ridiculed insanity defense, any jury at the time would be extremely skeptical of any "insanity" defense. So, it was no surprise that unlike John Hinkley, Paul Johnson was convicted and quickly condemned to death.
The irony of all this is that I've known Paul Johnson personally for over 20 years and I can tell you that Paul would be the first one to tell you that he should be held accountable for these deaths. In the 26 years that I've been on death row among the "cold blooded killers" and what society calls the worst of the worst psychopaths, there's probably not more than 5 guys who I would welcome into my house without reservation and sleep soundly through the night...Paul Johnson is without any question at the top of the list.
Since coming to Florida's death row Paul has now become a completely different man. No longer living his life with toxic levels of hard drugs, Paul has become a genuine Christian, who lives a life of moral values. In all the years that I have known Paul I never even once hears a single person say anything negative about him, nor have I ever seen or heard Paul engage in the games that are only too common around here. Quite simply, you just couldn't find a better man to live around and be blessed to call him your friend.
But now they want to kill him for an isolated act of violence brought about when he was under the influence of drugs almost 30 years ago. The state of Florida wants to put him to death for who he was a lifetime ago, deliberately taking the life of the man he is today.
I realize that there are many who would argue that Paul must be held accountable for the lives that he took. Anyone who actually knows Paul would know that he possesses genuine remorse for what he did and has often argued that he should be held accountable. But can anyone truly say that Paul falls into that category of the "worst of the worst" and that society would have anything to gain by now taking his life?
It is at times like this that I struggle with this concept of "justice" so commonly practiced by what we dare call a "civilized" society. What is "justice" anyway? When I look into my dictionary it says that justice is "the upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor" and "the principle of moral rightfullness and equity"
I do understand that as a civilized society we must hold those who commit a crime accountable, or our society would quickly descend into chaos. But I also understand that there is a substantial difference between administering justice and inflicting vengeance and that's what this is really all about - vengeance. This is about that dark and destructive need to exact vindictive revenge, not administering justice.
My dictionary defines "revenge" as "something done in vengeance, a retaliatory measure; a desire for revenge and vindictiveness" Then, when I turn a few pages over to the word "vindictiveness", I find that it is defined as "disposed to seek revenge, marked by or resulting from a desire to hurt, spiteful"
Under these objective definitions of the English language, Paul's now imminent execution is not about administering justice, but inflicting vengeance. And by doing so, our so-called "civilized" society becomes the very monster we say we seek to slay.
I can only ask you to pray for Paul and let him know that he is not alone. I can tell you this - even as Paul faces his own death at the hands of those consumed by hate and vengeance, I know without doubt that Paul will be on his own knees praying for them and accepting his own fate even if I cannot, like so many others. If Paul is executed by the state of Florida on Wednesday November 4 then his death will forever take a part of all of us and without the man he is today among us, as a society through his death we will all become something less.
NOTE: on October 28, 2009 Paul Johnson received a stay of execution in order to
consider significant issues raised in Claim 1 of this appeal concerning