Howell was convicted of the drug charges, and Sheffield decided to take his murder case despite protests by prosecutors that he should be removed. Because of the conflict, Howell’s family didn’t trust that Sheffield would be impartial, Rudenstine said. They refused to work with him to produce evidence about Howell’s mental health or family history, elements that should have been presented as mitigating elements in the sentencing phase of his criminal trial, she said.
The result, she said, is that the mitigation phase of the sentencing “was 25 minutes long when it should have lasted three days.”
A state court judge allowed Sheffield to remain on the case, but Howell’s attorneys now argue that is grounds for a federal habeas corpus review.
Howell lost his chance to make this argument earlier when, in 1999, a new lawyer who had never handled a federal case missed the federal court deadline. She dropped off the case, Rudenstine said, but his subsequent attorneys never raised a claim that Howell had been given ineffective representation.
“He’s been on death row for 22 years and still hasn’t had one-third of his appeals,” Rudenstine said. “If you speed up the conviction process, you are not going to give people better justice.”
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996, Congress imposed a one-year filing deadline for the habeas corpus review, but the U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled that there may be exceptions, including cases of inadequate representation.
The dilemma facing the state in Howell’s case exposes the shortcomings of Gaetz’s proposal, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
“It would be faster to do these cases right the first time — a good lawyer at trial and a good lawyer at the state appeals process and again when you get to he federal court,” he said. “But when the harm’s been done, should you speed up the process to execute somebody who lacks a federal constitutional review?”
A provision in the federal law already allows Florida to speed up its death row case load, Dieter said. The federal deadline could be moved from one year to 180 days, but the state would have to show the federal court that it provided inmates with adequate legal counsel throughout the process. Neither Florida, nor any other state, has ever put the resources in place to take advantage of that exception, Dieter said.
Gaetz said his bill would not blindly speed up the post-conviction process in Florida, and that it would impose penalties on lawyers for ineffective representation. He also wants to restore the Capital Collateral Representative process in the Northern District of Florida, the region where Howell was convicted, which provides experienced lawyers in capital cases. But he continues to believe the system is rife with “legal gamesmanship.”
“In a vast majority of these cases there have not been claims of actual innocence — they are just multiple claims regarding ineffective counsel,” Gaetz said. “The most egregious part is that a lawyer can basically fess up to being an ineffective counsel in one courtroom and then walk into the next room and pick up the next defendant.”
For Howell’s attorneys, that’s exactly why they want the federal court to review his case.