Federal judge rules he has jurisdiction in Fla. death penalty case, delays decision

February 23, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

A federal judge in Baltimore ruled yesterday that he has jurisdiction over a Miami death penalty case, but he delayed his decision on whether to halt the execution while the Florida Supreme Court reviews the case.

Rickey Bernard Roberts, a convicted rapist from Maryland, was scheduled to die in the electric chair this morning for a 1985 Miami murder. Florida's Supreme Court issued a temporary stay yesterday, rescheduling the execution for next Thursday.

If the Florida Supreme Court turns down Roberts' challenge during a hearing scheduled for Tuesday in Tallahassee, his fate could rest with U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis in Baltimore.

Judge Davis said yesterday that he was unsure how he would decide the unprecedented case.

"I believe I have jurisdiction," he told prosecutors and defense lawyers. "Whether the stay should be granted is an extremely difficult question."

Defense lawyers say Roberts was wrongly convicted of raping a 17-year-old girl and trying to kill her with a pair of scissors in Salisbury in 1974. Roberts had poor legal counsel, they say, and is entitled to a hearing under a Maryland law -- in effect at the time of the challenge but now superseded by a stricter law -- that allowed convicts to challenge convictions no matter how long ago they were.

After his release from prison in Maryland, Roberts went to Miami. In 1984, he approached a parked car near Key Biscayne. When he began to fondle a female passenger, her date objected and Roberts beat him to death with a bat. He then raped the woman twice.

He was convicted of murder in Miami a year later. The jurors considered the rape and attempted-murder convictions in Maryland when they voted 7-5 to send Roberts to the electric chair. A 6-6 tie would have meant a life sentence.

In a hearing yesterday, prosecutors told Judge Davis that he shouldn't interfere with the Florida case.

Judge Davis agreed that he lacked a precedent, but he denied Florida's motion to cut him out of the case. In a partial victory for prosecutors, the judge said he wanted to hold a hearing next week to determine whether Roberts forfeited his right to challenge the rape conviction by waiting two decades to make his case.

That hearing, based on a motion filed by the Maryland attorney general's office, may never take place.

If the Florida Supreme Court lifts its stay of execution, Judge Davis will decide whether to issue a stay. If the judge halts the execution, Roberts will have a hearing on the Eastern Shore.

If Judge Davis declines to halt the execution, Roberts will be put to death in Florida's electric chair at 7 a.m. Thursday.

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