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Inquiry dropped after lawyer exits death cases

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Supreme Court chief justice Thursday dropped an investigation into a lawyer who repeatedly missed critical deadlines in death penalty cases, after she resigned from a statewide registry that made her eligible to represent defendants in capital cases.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga in November ordered a highly unusual inquiry into lawyer Mary Catherine Bonner, "pursuant to the (Supreme) Court's authority to monitor the representation of capital defendants to ensure that the defendants receive quality representation." The chief judge appointed 3rd District Court of Appeal Judge Kevin Emas as referee of the investigation and named Belvin Perry --- a former 9th Judicial Circuit chief judge --- to serve as special counsel to the referee.

Labarga's November order came seven months after prominent death-penalty lawyer Martin McClain wrote to the court outlining concerns about Bonner.

Bonner repeatedly missed critical deadlines in death penalty appeals, was involved in a capital case in which roach-infested boxes of documents were destroyed by rain and represented two inmates whose attempts at firing her were ignored until after the Supreme Court inquiry was launched.

In an undated letter provided to The News Service of Florida by the Justice Administration Commission on Jan. 25, Bonner submitted her resignation from the registry of lawyers who can be assigned to represent capital defendants. Bonner also said she intended to withdraw from any cases on which she was currently counsel.

On Thursday, Labarga issued an order canceling the investigation, based on input from Emas.

"He recommends that because Ms. Bonner has resigned from the Capital Collateral Attorney Registry and is no longer Registry counsel of record in any pending postconviction capital collateral proceedings, no further investigation is warranted. The Court agrees and, accordingly, this administrative matter is hereby dismissed," Thursday's order, signed by Labarga, said.

Bonner told The News Service of Florida on Thursday she was "flabbergasted" when Labarga ordered the inquiry but is pleased with the outcome.

"All I can tell you is that I'm very happy it resolved itself in that way. I have a lot of respect for both Belvin and Kevin Emas," she said.

Bonner, 71, said she had intended to step away from her capital cases because she and her husband, who had a stroke more than a decade ago, planned to move to a home in Georgia.

Bonner at first said the investigation did not prompt her resignation from the registry, but quickly revised her answer.

"Did I time it that way? Maybe," she acknowledged. "I've been a trial lawyer for all these years, and if you can finish something and get it done, you do it. This was a way to resolve everything, and it let me lift up on some of my obligations and try to take care of my husband. … I'm having a (difficult) time."

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 represented in state court. Cave and Scott 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 last 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 she and her husband had undergone, but the Jacksonville federal judge was not appeased.

"The terms 'bad faith' or 'dishonesty' capture Ms. Bonner's conduct and are the type of egregious conduct that rises well above professional negligence or even gross negligence," Corrigan wrote of Bonner's handling of Asay's petitions in 2009.

Bonner's delays in filing the federal appeals prompted Corrigan to grant "equitable tolling" in both cases, allowing the missed deadlines to be ignored.

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.

In March, Cave sent a handwritten letter to the Supreme Court requesting that Bonner be terminated as his attorney, saying he had not seen her in four years and she had not responded to his letters and calls.

Cave --- whom Bonner represented for nearly half of the more than three decades he has spent on Death Row --- was concerned about the impact of a seminal U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, in a case known as Hurst v. Florida, on his case. That decision prompted the state court to put the scheduled executions of Asay and Cary Michael Lambrix on hold indefinitely.

In April, Bonner asked the state court to keep her on as Cave's lawyer, saying she "took a very bad fall" and broke her shoulder. Bonner went on to describe in detail problems she encountered during her recovery, including "a terrible adverse reaction to pain medication" and lengthy waits at the hospital where she was being treated.

Bonner withdrew from Cave's and Scott's cases last month, according to court records.