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October 15, 2012
Opposition points to a murder case to discredit the justices

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

From his holding cell at the Leon County Courthouse, Joe Elton Nixon ripped off his clothes, shouted he wanted a black judge and a black lawyer, and taunted the bailiffs to shoot him.

A few yards away, inside the Tallahassee courtroom, a jury was being chosen for his first-degree murder trial.

It was a crime so gruesome that the chosen jurors would wipe away tears while viewing the evidence photos of state worker Jeanne Bickner tied to a tree with jumper cables and burned to death.

They were the same jumper cables she had offered a stranger in the parking lot of Tallahassee’s Governor’s Square Mall on a Sunday afternoon in 1984, after she had sung in the church choir and had lunch with friends at the cafeteria.

Faced with his client’s confession to both his brother and the sheriff, and other overwhelming evidence of guilt, seasoned Assistant Public Defender Michael Corin told the jury in opening statements in the guilt phase that his client was guilty.

“This case is about the death of Joe Elton Nixon and whether it should occur within the next few years by electrocution or maybe its natural expiration after a lifetime of confinement,” Corin said.

Admitting guilt on the trial’s first day set in motion a strategy to save his client’s life — or at least delay his death sentence.

Now, the Republican Party of Florida cites the Nixon case a reason Justices Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente, and Peggy Quince do not deserve to keep their jobs.

“While the collective evidence of judicial activism amassed by these three individuals is extensive, there is one egregious example that all Florida voters should bear in mind when they go to the polls on election day,” said RPOF Press Secretary Kristen McDonald, referring to the Nixon case.

“The fact that the United States Supreme Court voted, unanimously, to throw out their legal opinion raises serious questions as to their competence to understand the law and serve on the bench, and demonstrates that all three justices are too extreme not just for Florida, but for America, too.”

As detailed in case nos. SC92-006, SC93-192; and SC01-2486, here is the legal path the Nixon case took:

* In 1990, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and death sentence on direct appeal.

* In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Nixon’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

* In 1993, Nixon filed a Rule 3.850 motion, which the trial court denied without an evidentiary hearing. Nixon appealed that denial, filing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the Florida Supreme Court that raised seven issues relating to the denial of his Rule 3.850 motion and three issues in his habeas petition.

* In 2000, the Florida Supreme Court found the primary issue to be Nixon’s claim that he was denied effective assistance of counsel when his lawyer conceded guilt without his consent. The opposing parties were in disagreement regarding the appropriate standard of review to be applied in the case, with the state arguing the standard should be the one explained in Strickland v. Washington [466 U.S. 668 (1984)]. The court agreed with Nixon’s lawyers that United States v. Cronic [466 U.S. 648 (1984)] standard was the proper test, holding that his lawyer’s admission of his guilt denied his right to have his guilt or innocence decided by the jury.

* In 2001, the case was remanded back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing, where only Corin testified. Second Circuit Judge Janet Ferris denied relief, finding that Nixon had consented to his lawyer’s strategy.

* In 2003, the Florida Supreme Court applied the per se ineffective assistance to counsel standard from Cronic and remanded for a new trial.

* In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari review and held that ineffective assistance of counsel claim should have been analyzed under Strickland.

* In April 2006, the Florida Supreme Court readdressed the ineffective assistance of counsel claim on the issue of concession of guilt, as well as other issues raised in Nixon’s appeal. The court affirmed the trial court’s denial of post-conviction relief, and denied habeas relief.

That per curium opinion was decided by Pariente, Lewis, Quince, and former Justices Charles Wells and Raoul Cantero. Former Justice Harry Lee Anstead concurred in result only. And former Justice Kenneth Bell did not participate.

Seven months later, at a merit retention race in November 2006, then Chief Justice Fred Lewis was retained with 67.1 percent of the vote. Justice Barbara Pariente received a 67.6 percent “yes” votes. Justice Peggy Quince was retained with 68.2 percent.

Now, those three justices are hoping to keep their jobs in another merit retention race.

And Nixon remains on Florida’s death row.

[Revised: 11-19-2013]