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Families of victims frustrated as inmates linger on Death Row

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tom Chappell is 86. He's afraid the man who murdered his son will outlive him.

It's been nearly two decades since escaped prisoner Noberto "Spiderman" Pietri shot West Palm Beach motorcycle officer Brian Chappell in the heart on a street corner. He's been on Death Row for nearly 17 years. With executions frozen after the latest problems in administering death to prisoners, families of victims who died long ago worry they face even more of a wait.

Photos Photos: Local Death Row inmates

Chart: Local inmates on Death Row (PDF)
Florida Department of Corrections
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Florida's Death Row
Death Row roster
Executions since 1976

Death Row inmates

Death Row is home to 374 inmates from 48 of Florida's 67 counties. They account for 477 death sentences. Of those, 27 were sentenced from the Palm Beach-Martin-St. Lucie-Okeechobee region. The most from any county: Miami-Dade's 59. The seven county region from Key West to Fort Pierce and west to Okeechobee accounts for a quarter of death sentences.

Death sentences - leading, local counties:



Broward: 34

Hillsborough: 33

Pinellas: 30

Volusia: 27

Orange: 26

Polk: 15

Brevard: 14

Escambia: 14

Lake: 14

Palm Beach: 14

Martin: 8

St. Lucie: 4

Okeechobee: 2

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"I thought, maybe 10 or 12 years," Chappell said recently from his Jupiter Farms home.

The Slatterys are just as flustered. Duane Owen, who killed Karen Slattery in 1984 while the 14-year-old baby-sat in Delray Beach, has been on Death Row more than 20 years. In that time, Carolyn Slattery's husband was killed in a small-plane crash, Karen's body was exhumed and Owen got a new trial, which sent him back to Death Row. Owen was back in court in August, arguing his attorney at his second trial didn't effectively represent him.

Both Pietri and Owen have all but exhausted appeals. Both have last-ditch motions before federal courts. Pietri's has been in the works for two years. Owen's, which is for the murder of a second woman, was all argued out more than three years ago and awaits only a ruling.

"I'm not very happy about it," Carolyn Slattery said from Boynton Beach. "Had this judge not sat on this, his appeals, for so long, maybe he would have been executed."

The two are among 22 men facing the death penalty from Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties. The newest, "Salerno Strangler" Eugene McWatters, was sentenced Dec. 4 in the strangling of three women in 2004.

Nine have been on Death Row longer than the state's average of 12.86 years.

On Dec. 15, after Angel Diaz - convicted of fatally shooting the manager of a Miami topless club in 1979 - had to be injected twice and took a half-hour to die, outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush ordered executions frozen while the method is studied.

"To say it took this man 34 minutes to die," Slattery said, her voice in a choked whisper.

"It took my daughter a long time to die, too."

Inmates linger

Even before Bush's act, however, none of the men from this region appeared close to being executed. In fact, 29 men have been under a death sentence longer than Paul William Scott, the longest-tenured of those from this region, with 26 years on Death Row.

As of mid-December, 374 people are on Florida's Death Row, behind Texas' 390 and California's 655. Yet Florida has executed but 27 people in the last decade.

Inmates' lawyers and death penalty opponents say that's fine with them.

Civil-rights advocates say they can't imagine any legal process that needs to be handled with more care.

Relatives of murder victims say that if you have a death penalty, use it.

The wait is shorter than it once was, said Roger Maas, executive director of the Commission on Capital Cases, a state advisory agency. Major changes to the appeals process in 1997 cut the average time before execution by as much as seven years, Maas said from Tallahassee.

Although the process of setting an execution date appears random, some thought goes into it, authorities said. Inmates are selected based on how close they are to exhausting legal efforts to delay or avoid the visit to the death chamber and the likeliness of their succeeding.

Gov. Bush's recent moratorium doesn't stop the clock on that, Maas said.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says the long stretch before executions has saved lives.

Florida accounts for about one in five of all Death Row inmates who were later exonerated. Of 123 nationwide, 22 were from Florida.

"Florida has a problem, and it's not just that they have trouble inserting a needle correctly," coalition spokesman David Elliot said from Washington. "These people spent an average of eight years each on Death Row before exoneration. If you speed up the appeals process, you speed up the number of actual wrongful executions."

Elliot said the group doesn't expect Florida's moratorium to last long and said any serious attempt to abolish the death penalty in Florida or anywhere else is at least five years away.

The organization encourages life without parole as an alternative.

"We do not want criminals out on the streets," Elliot said, "We went them punished. But the death penalty is a flawed, expensive and error-prone public policy."

Appeals process extensive

Scott, who is entering his second quarter-century on Death Row, was 16 hours away from execution in 1994 when he got a stay. Scott says he's innocent.

He has argued he left the home of James Alessi before any beating occurred and it was his co-defendant, Richard Kondian, who actually killed the Boca Raton florist. Kondian, who at 18 was too young to qualify for the death penalty, received a 45-year sentence and was out in 15 years.

The state argued Scott's versions of his role in the murder have ranged from innocence to admitting he beat Alessi. Also, the state argued, Scott's fingerprints were found on the knife used to cut the electrical cord that bound Alessi. Relatives of Alessi did not return phone calls.

In 2000, renowned private investigator Paul Ciolino, who'd already helped get two Florida Death Row inmates exonerated, said he was looking into Scott's claims.

Reached recently at his office near Chicago, Ciolino said, "I thought he had a substantial argument that he was innocent." However, the church helping fund Scott's defense ran out of money.

And this August, Palm Beach Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown refused Scott's request for DNA testing of blood-smeared items, which Scott had argued would prove he wasn't involved in the slaying.

Spiderman Pietri's latest federal appeal, filed in December 2004, is still in the argument phase; Docket 13, a state response to the original appeal, is due Jan. 6. Tom Chappell's best guess is that it will be at least three to five years before Pietri would go to the death chamber.

"By that time, I would not be surprised if the death penalty is abolished," he said.

Chappell's worried that, if that happens or Pietri's sentence is otherwise commuted, it would be reduced not to life without parole, but to life with a chance of parole after 25 years. Should that be retroactive to Pietri's 1990 conviction, he could be eligible for release soon, although that's unlikely.

"Has anyone that's been tried capitally and sentenced to 'life-25' as an alternative to the death penalty ever been paroled? I don't think so," William Hennis, Pietri's appointed lawyer, said in December from Fort Lauderdale.

"It's a crap shoot, it's a random lottery, as to who gets chosen to be tried capitally, who gets sentenced to death and who ultimately gets executed," Hennis said. "There's a real 'equal protection' and 'due process' flaw problem in a system that works as randomly as the lottery does."

Tom Chappell is not consoled.

At the time of his sentencing, Pietri had agreed to a bargain that would draw a life sentence with no chance of parole. The Chappells vetoed it. They wanted him executed.

"I didn't know it was going to take this long. Especially as the guy confessed," Chappell said. "I'm utterly at a loss for why he's still alive."

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