In its rush to secure “justice,” the Florida Legislature has fast-tracked death-penalty legislation at the peril of the innocent.
House Bill 7083, the “Timely Justice Act,” is an attempt to stop frivolous appeals, something everyone can agree on. Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, the legislation requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days after a state Supreme Court review, with the execution taking place within 180 days after that. It does away with certain types of defenses in death penalty cases.
The Florida Supreme Court already has appointed a committee to go over existing judicial rules and see how cases can move more quickly. That study will be released in September.
So why is the Legislature jumping ahead — the House passed the bill last week and the Senate gave its nod on Monday — without all the facts?
The Death Penalty Information Center lists Florida death row inmates locked up for more than 10 years before being exonerated by new evidence of their innocence: James Richardson (21 years), Juan Melendez (18), Rudolph Holton (16), Frank Lee Smith (14), Freddie Pitts (12), Wilbur Lee (12), Joseph Brown (13), and Seth Penalver (13).
All of them might have been executed if the legislation that’s heading to the governor’s desk had been the law. That’s exactly why Gov. Rick Scott should veto the legislation and have the Legislature wait for the Supreme Court committee’s findings.
The Innocence Project of Florida has worked for more than a decade looking for DNA evidence when available, evidence of mistaken identity by witnesses and — as in the case of Juan Melendez, who served 18 years for a murder he did not commit — a confession by the real killer that the courts missed.
Already, 24 wrongfully convicted Death Row inmates have been cleared since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973 — the most of any of the 32states that impose the death penalty. Another 75 prisoners have been executed in Florida. As Mark Elliott, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, points out, “That’s one exoneration for every three executions.”
That should give every Floridian pause.
Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on Death Row after 14 years in prison. Sadly, after his death, DNA testing proved he was innocent and also identified the real killer. What kind of justice did Mr. Smith get?
There are heinous crimes that require the death penalty, but the evidence must be air tight. It’s not in many cases. The American Bar Association released an exhaustive report in 2006 pointing out the problems, including racial disparities in meting out justice. For eight years little has been done and now Tallahassee lawmakers are going full speed ahead in the dark.
If the point is to reduce the stay on death row to less than a decade, it’s the wrong focus. The real problem is sloppy justice, cases where evidence is hidden, for instance, and current state rules that allow judges to impose the death penalty without even a unanimous jury vote.
As it is, Florida’s average death row stay for inmates is about 13.2 years before execution, which is less than the national average of 14.8 years. Yes, there are cases that are more than two decades old, but the “cure” the Legislature is proposing would likely result in more innocent people being put to death.
That’s simply unacceptable.