Florida Supreme Court Affirms Lower Court’s Denial of Relief in Execution Case: A Look at Howell v. State

March 17, 2014 by David S. Seltzer

Paul Augustus Howell, a man convicted of a Florida crime of killing a highway patrol trooper in 1998, recently appealed his death sentence to the Florida Supreme Court. The Court affirmed the lower court’s denial of relief, paving the way for his execution.

Howell had been convicted of first degree murder, after he killed a Florida trooper with a homemade bomb (that he had built, incidentally, to kill a witness in a trial). The bomb went off before it reached its target, killing the officer, instead. Howell appealed for post conviction relief, per Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.851. He challenged the protocol for lethal injection in Florida. In his appeal, he raised several points:

• Florida recently changed its protocol for lethal injection, using a compound known called vecuronium bromide. Howell argued that the State violated the Eighth Amendment by including the drug Midazolam in its protocol.
• He also said that using three drugs in the lethal injection cocktail (instead of just one) violated the Eighth Amendment.
• He argued that using vecuronium bromide in the mix violated both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
• He took issue with the fact that State has been changing up its legal injection protocol, arguing that this general pace of change, in and of itself, violated the Eighth Amendment.
• He argued that his motions for post conviction discovery should not have been denied -- in other words, that the post conviction court made an error.
• He tried to strike testimony from Dr. Mark Dershwitz, a witness called by the State.

Unfortunately for Howell, all his arguments fell on deaf ears, legally speaking. The Court affirmed the denial of relief. First of all, the Court said that it was not impressed by his Eighth Amendment challenges to the lethal injection protocol, in general. Secondly, the Court found that the Eighth Amendment would not be violated by the use of Midazolam. Third, the Supreme Court didn't buy his argument that a previous case, Sell v. United States, precluded the use of vecuronium bromide, per the Fourteenth Amendment. Finally, the Supreme Court did not buy the argument that the testimony of Dr. Dershwitz should have been striked.

So what can Howell v. State teach us?

First of all, when a defendant faces a serious penalty, like capital punishment, options do abound to protest legally. However, those options are not unlimited. Secondly, although the application of capital punishment can take a while, you cannot delay the punishment indefinitely – in this case, it took the justice system over 15 years to kill Howell, after he had been convicted of first degree murder.

For help constructing an effective Florida criminal defense, talk to the team here at Seltzer Law, PA at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (888-843-3333). We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help you understand your charges and prepare a stiff defense.