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Judge Orders Investigation Of Death Penalty Lawyer

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In a highly unusual move, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga has ordered an investigation of a death penalty lawyer who has repeatedly missed critical deadlines, was involved in a capital case in which roach-infested boxes of documents were destroyed by rain and who is currently representing two inmates who are trying to fire her.
Labarga ordered the probe of Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mary Catherine Bonner "pursuant to the Court's authority to monitor the representation of capital defendants to ensure that the defendants receive quality representation" on Nov. 8, seven months after prominent death-penalty lawyer Martin McClain wrote to the court outlining concerns about Bonner.

Bonner, included in a registry of lawyers appointed by the court to represent Florida Death Row inmates in post-conviction appeals, was rebuked by a federal judge several years ago for failing on two separate occasions to meet a one-year deadline to file habeas corpus petitions. Such federal appeals provide inmates a last chance to have their convictions reviewed on a variety of grounds.

In this month's administrative order, Labarga appointed 3rd District Court of Appeal Judge Kevin Emas as the referee in the Bonner investigation and named Belvin Perry — a former 9th Judicial Circuit chief judge who presided over the Casey Anthony murder trial — to serve as special counsel to the referee.

Labarga gave Emas 90 days to complete the inquiry and file a report on Bonner.

Bonner did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Numerous death-penalty legal experts told The News Service of Florida that Labarga's order appeared to be the first of its kind.

Florida's death penalty has been under scrutiny for nearly a year, since the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, issued a ruling in January that struck down the state's capital sentencing system as unconstitutional because it gave too much power to judges, instead of juries.

State lawmakers hurriedly passed a new law intended to fix the deficiency, but the Florida Supreme Court last month overturned that law because it did not require unanimous jury recommendations for the death penalty to be imposed.

Labarga ordered the Bonner investigation after McClain sent a letter April 4 to the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court raising alarms about two Death Row inmates, Alphonso Cave and Paul William Scott, whom Bonner represents in state court. Cave and Scott have independently asked the court to dismiss Bonner from their cases; both men alleged that their lawyer went for years without contacting them. McClain represented Scott for a period over a decade ago, as well as Cave's co-defendant, who has since been executed.

McClain also wrote about Bonner's court-appointed representation of two Death Row inmates — including Mark James Asay, whose pending execution was put on hold by the Florida Supreme Court earlier this year. McClain now represents the two Death Row inmates.

In 2009, U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan harshly criticized Bonner for filing federal appeals in the cases of Asay and William Greg Thomas more than 200 days after a one-year deadline had run out.

Bonner blamed the delays in part on health problems both she and her husband had undergone, but the Jacksonville judge was not appeased.

The Florida Attorney General's office, which represents the state in capital cases, opposed giving the inmates more time to file the federal appeals but maintained that Bonner's conduct warranted sanctions.

Even so, the state opposes allowing inmates whom Bonner currently represents to fire her.