When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the death warrant for Flagler County triple-murderer Louis Gaskin, a killing now scheduled for April 12 at the state prison in Raiford, he didn’t end all appeals. He merely kicked off a series of new ones, some on relatively novel ground, some not.
On novel grounds, and certainly in a first in Flagler, where no death row inmate convicted here has been executed since the state re-instituted the death penalty in 1973, Gaskin is challenging the drug cocktail used in lethal injections. His attorneys may argue that one of the drugs, an anesthetic, is not effective enough to prevent tortuous pain before the time of death, and therefore belies the state’s claim that lethal injection is painless.
According to the Death penalty Information center, there have been 75 botched executions by lethal injection, out of 1,054 executions by that method, or 7.12 percent.
Another claim is that his “conviction and sentence were obtained in violation of his rights under Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, including his rights to substantive and procedural due process related to competency to stand trial.” In other words, Gaskin may have been mentally or psychologically incapacitated at the time of the killings, or the trial, to understand the 1990 trial before then-Circuit Judge Kim Hammond in Bunnell.
To buttress these arguments, Gaskin’s attorneys have filed a slew of extensive public record requests with the governor’s office, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Commission on Offender Review, the State Attorney’s Office, the attorney general’s office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The requests would have to be fulfilled and turned in by Monday, to comply with a court schedule of hearings.
The requests, Gaskin’s attorneys argue, are “not overly broad or unduly burdensome. A mere inconvenience to the agency cannot outweigh Mr. Gaskin’s due process rights to gather additional evidence to avoid the ultimate sanction of execution.” Agency attorneys argue otherwise.
Gaskin murdered 56-year-old Robert Sturmfels and 55-year-old Georgette Sturmfels at their R-Section home a few days before Christmas in 1989, and shot at another couple, critically wounding a man, the same night. He confessed to murdering Charles Martin, three years earlier. (See: “Louis Gaskin, Convicted for 2 Murders in R-Section in 1990, to Be 1st-Ever Execution of Flagler Resident,” and “Janet Valentine, a Juror and Future Superintendent, Regrets Voting for Gaskin’s Death. Prosecutor Does Not.”)
All the related hearings the requests have triggered are taking place at the Bunnell courthouse before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins. The gravity of the requests is echoed in the tone of the hearings and driven by the extremely tight timeline dictated by two dates: the April 12 execution, should it take place, and a Supreme Court review of the latest findings and arguments, which will take place, because absent a last-minute and entirely unlikely stay by the governor, it’ll be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the execution should occur.
All those proceedings have to be completed by next Wednesday (March 22) at 3 p.m., with a transcribed record filed to the Supreme Court by March 24. The process will skip the usual court of appeal step and go straight to the high court. Beyond that, there will also likely be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay.
Meanwhile, Perkins has scheduled hearings for Friday, Monday and Tuesday, and has already held hearings today and yesterday. Reflecting the complicated and punctilious nature of judicial proceedings leading up to a person’s execution, yesterday’s was a hearing to schedule hearings: Perkins outlined what would happen when, and did so again today, with Gaskin attending by zoom from the state prison in Raiford, and all but one of the attorneys attending by zoom.
The likelihood that the high court would alter or scrap the execution date appears as slim as that of the governor issuing a stay or a pardon. It is somewhere beyond the realm of hail Marys. That’s not diminishing the intent or seriousness of Gaskin’s attorneys. His lead attorney, Tracy Henry, told the judge this afternoon that the defense had filed all its public record requests but at Friday’s hearing, other agencies will make their objections.
For example, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are objecting to the requests for records about the lethal injection cocktail. Last May the Legislature passed–and the governor signed–a law shielding vast swaths of the lethal injection machinery from public view, exempting it from public records.
The Florida Commission on Offender Review has already filed its objection, saying the requests are not in line with rules of procedure and that Gaskin’s attorneys are not showing a relevant connection between the requests and his circumstances. “The Florida Supreme Court,” the commission’s objection reads, “has repeatedly stressed and long held that collateral postconviction records requests are not to be used for fishing expeditions and that the defendant bears the burden of proving that the records he requests are, in fact, related to a colorable claim for post-conviction relief.” The commission also argues that there’s no showing that anything would turn up that could be admissible evidence, other than that Gaskin “simply says it is so.”
Next week there will be a so-called Huff hearing, where the sides will argue whether there should be an additional hearing to present evidence or not. Gaskin is not required to be at the Huff hearing in person. He is required to be present at an evidentiary hearing.
With that possibility in mind, Perkins has signed an order to have Gaskin transported to Flagler. He will be housed at the Flagler County jail, like previous death row inmates before him who’d had numerous hearings locally, at least for a few days next week.
Gaskin did not address the court, but just as Perkins was ending the hearing this afternoon, Henry, his attorney, addressed him: “Bye Mr. Gaskin. Be well.”