TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A man who has been sentenced to death three times for drug-addled rampage that left a Polk County deputy and two others dead will once again get a chance to be spared execution after a Florida Supreme Court ruling Thursday.
Two governors have signed death warrants for Paul Beasley Johnson — Bob Graham in 1986 and Charlie Crist in 2009 — for the January 1981 murders. The first time the Supreme Court ordered a new trial, the second time it ordered a new sentencing hearing. A judge in 2014 gave Johnson three deaths sentences after 11-1 jury recommendations.
But the Supreme Court ordered another sentencing hearing, citing two U.S. Supreme Court rulings requiring juries, not judges, to impose sentences. That includes a decision that led the state high court to rule in October that jury decisions have to be unanimous.
Thursday’s ruling was frustrating to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who convinced Crist to sign Johnson’s death warrant.
“When he was convicted originally, then he should have been put to death after his appeals. And as time has gone on, the rules have changed,” said Judd. “They are making us comply with 2016 rules in a murder that happened in 1981. It is just one more frustration in our effort to see that justice prevails.”
Johnson was using crystal meth when he told friends he was going to find more drugs, even if he had to shoot someone, according to court records. The first victim was cab driver William Evans, who Johnson robbed and shot twice in the face. The next was Darrell Ray Beasley. Johnson told Beasley his car broke down and asked for a ride. Johnson shot Beasley in the head and took his wallet.
As police were searching for Johnson, Deputy Theron Burnham radioed that he believed he spotted the suspect in the shootings. By the time other deputies arrived, they found Burnham’s body in a ditch. He had been shot three times and his gun was missing. The responding deputies then found Johnson and exchanged gunfire before arresting him.
The Supreme Court did uphold Johnson’s convictions in the now nearly 36-year-old murders and chose to order a new sentencing hearing rather than impose the only other possible sentence: life without parole.
Judd said that by the time a new hearing is conducted, there’s a good chance Johnson, 67, will end up dying in prison even if a jury unanimously votes for the death penalty.
“He will more than likely die of old age on death row before he is executed. Even with a 12-0 jury recommendation, then all the processes start all over again,” Judd said. “We have a judicial system that doesn’t think there should be death penalties, so they make it just absolutely difficult, almost impossible.”