Bill reducing delays in implementation of death penalty approved


News Service of Florida

State lawmakers Monday gave final approval to a proposal aimed at reducing delays in carrying out the death penalty, with supporters saying they want justice for victims’ families — but critics warning about executing innocent people.

Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who sponsored the measure, said some inmates have been on Death Row for more than 30 years.

"That isn’t justice,’’ Negron said. "That’s a mockery of the court system."

But other lawmakers pointed to scientific advances, such as DNA evidence, that have helped clear some inmates who have been imprisoned for long periods.

"I just think this swiftness does not necessarily equate to fairness,’’ said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

Senators voted 28-10 on Monday to approve the bill (HB 7083), which passed the House last week. It now goes to Gov. Rick Scott.

The bill focuses, at least in part, on ending delays in what is known as the "post-conviction" legal process, which starts after the Florida Supreme Court upholds death sentences in initial appeals. The post-conviction process can involve appeals about issues such as whether defendants have received ineffective legal representation.

Among other things, the bill seeks to ensure that attorneys have "actual" conflicts of interest before being replaced in death-penalty cases. Replacing attorneys can cause delays.

Also, the bill would take steps to prevent attorneys from representing Death Row inmates if the attorneys have had problems in earlier capital cases. The bill would bar lawyers from working on death-penalty cases for five years if courts have found that they provided deficient representation twice.

As of early March, Florida had 404 inmates on Death Row, with 155 in custody for more than 20 years, according to a House staff analysis. Ten had been on Death Row for more than 35 years.

This month, Florida executed Larry Eugene Mann, who was convicted in 1981 in the abduction and murder of a 10-year girl in Pinellas County.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the bill would not prevent inmates from pursuing legitimate claims of innocence. But he echoed Negron’s argument that having some people sitting on Death Row for decades makes a "mockery" of the justice system. "This bill is about closure for victims’ families," said Bradley, a former prosecutor.

But a group called Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said in a news release Monday that 24 wrongfully convicted Death Row prisoners have been exonerated since Florida resumed executions in the 1970s.

“Legislation that speeds executions by limiting appeals will almost certainly lead to the execution of innocent men and women,” said Mark Elliott, the group’s director.

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