If all goes as planned, Carl Elliott and his extended family next Thursday will make a trip that has eluded them for nearly 30 years.
At 6 p.m., the 81-year-old plans to be sitting next to loved ones in a viewing area at Florida State Prison when a lethal cocktail is administered to the now 58-year-old serial killer who raped and killed Elliott's 17-year-old daughter, Lynn, in Vero Beach in 1983. David Alan Gore, who picked up Lynn Elliott and a 14-year-old friend who were hitchhiking to the beach, later confessed to murdering five other women and received five life sentences.
"We've been patiently waiting for this after all these years. We miss her everyday," Elliott said. "We're ready to go up there and see it done."
Whether Elliott and his family will finally see Gore die for murdering the teen now rests with the Florida Supreme Court.
And, thanks to a two-week-old U.S. Supreme Court decision, the options facing the state's high court aren't clear-cut. In arguments Wednesday, an attorney representing Gore urged justices not to make a snap judgment in his case.
"It effects not just Mr. Gore and not just Death Row inmates," attorney Martin McClain said of the high court's recent decision. It will impact hundreds of inmates who were convicted of far lesser crimes than murder, he said.
He urged the justices to stay Gore's planned execution to give attorneys throughout the state the chance to weigh in on what one justice called a "troubling" ruling that allows inmates to return to court after their initial appeals to argue that their attorneys did a bad job. Since claims of ineffective assistance of counsel aren't allowed until after a case goes through standard appeals, some claim the ruling could pave the way for court-appointed attorneys to represent prisoners after their initial appeals have been exhausted.
In Gore's case, McClain argued, he had not just one bad attorney but two. Stuart attorney Robert Udell, who gained fame in Palm Beach County when he represented teacher-killer Nathaniel Brazill in 2001 and was subsequently disbarred for financial misdeeds, made numerous errors when he represented Gore in a 1992 resentencing hearing, McClain said. For instance, he failed to tell the jury about Gore's alcohol, drug abuse and mental health problems or that chances were slim that he would ever be released if he received life in prison.
Another attorney, Andrew Graham, in 1999 argued that Udell's incompetence caused a second jury to recommend Gore receive the death penalty instead of a life sentence. But Udell denied he was at fault. Udell blamed another attorney, Jerome Nickerson, who he claimed was the lead attorney during Gore's resentencing. However, Graham never found Nickerson, who had moved out of state, which gave him little ammunition in the appeal that was rejected by the Florida Supreme Court in 2007.
As evidence of Graham's incompetence, McClain said he was able to find Nickerson with a quick Google search. The discovery of Nickerson is new evidence that should, as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, give Gore another basis for appeal, he said.
Justices appeared less than enamored with McClain's efforts to use the recent decision to spare Gore.
Justice Barbara Pariente said the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Arizona case involving convicted sex offender Luis Mariano Martinez is aimed at federal courts.
"It has everything to do with the nightmare that's going to be created in the federal system," she said of the opportunity for inmates to flood courts with appeals. "It has nothing to do with what states are forced to look at."
Further, she said, McClain has had years to find Nickerson and lodge an appeal. McClain countered that, until the Martinez decision, he had no way to challenge Graham's incompetence.
Justice Peggy Quince said "the language of Martinez is really troubling" and it appears the ruling is far-reaching.
Assistant Florida attorney general Celia Terenzio said there is no reason to delay Gore's execution. Even if Udell or Graham didn't represent Gore well, the Florida Supreme Court in 2007 said their actions didn't spur the jury to recommend that he be sentenced to death. "There was no prejudice," she said.
Further, she said, the Martinez decision is very narrow, applying to people whose appeals were blocked on procedural grounds. Gore has had numerous appeals since he was first sent to Death Row in 1984, including one for ineffective assistance of counsel, which was rejected. Also, she said, the high court didn't say people have a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney in post-conviction appeals, only that in certain cases it may be necessary.
In death penalty cases, Florida always provides inmates with appellate lawyers for post-conviction appeals, she said.
Court-watchers said the decision facing the Florida Supreme Court's is difficult.
"The Florida Supreme Court is going to have to look at this as a new ruling without any guidance for how it's going
to be interpreted," said attorney Michael Minerva, CEO of the Innocence Project of Florida. "The prudent thing to do would be to get additional time to figure out how it applies to Florida courts."
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, agreed. "It wouldn't be the first time an execution has been stayed because the Supreme Court surprises people with a decision."