Fred Grimm: As other states ban executions, Florida says kill ’em faster

On Thursday, Maryland became the sixth state in the past six years to abolish capital punishment. Eighteen states have now done away with the death penalty. Florida, of course, is not among them.

Rather, the Florida Legislature has taken a different, defiant tack. Last week, legislators sent Gov. Scott the so-called Timely Justice Act, a bill designed to hasten executions. The bill sets new deadlines for death-penalty appeals, and forces the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days, once the case has been reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. And that starts the timer again, giving the state 180 days to execute the prisoner.

The bill, no doubt, makes for savvy politics, addressing the public’s frustration, often voiced by victims’ families, with the long wait for justice after horrific murders. Condemned prisoners spend an average of 13.22 years on Florida’s Death Row before they’re finally executed.

But House Bill 7083 does nothing to fix the grotesque flaws that undermine confidence that we’re killing the right people for the right crimes — the same problems that led Maryland to junk the whole damn system.

Maryland’s frustration had less to do with the concept of capital punishment or the morality of state-sanctioned killing than with the difficulties in finding a fair way to administer the penalty. A state commission had found the process marred by too many instances of police misconduct, such as the eliciting of false confessions and leading witnesses into false identifications. And with prosecutorial reluctance to turn away trumped-up cases, sometimes concealing exculpatory evidence from defense lawyers.

The problems that were so bothersome in the Maryland death-penalty cases have been epidemic in Florida. Twenty-four condemned prisoners — more than any other state — have been exonerated during that long capital penalty appeals process that our state legislators find so irksome. Most of them, noted Seth Miller, director of the Innocence Project of Florida, had languished on Death Row for more than 15 years before they were finally vindicated. “If we sped up that paradigm, most of them, maybe all of them, would have been executed before they would have been able to bring those claims and be vindicated.”

Miller said, “My organization doesn’t take a position on the death penalty, but when legislation makes it more difficult to prove someone’s innocence, we can’t be in favor of that.”

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein was outright stunned by the legislation. “The state of Florida leads the nation in the number of innocent people convicted in capital murder cases. Forgetting the issue of whether the death penalty is good or bad, if we know the present system doesn’t work, know for a fact that it is broken, why would anyone speed up a broken system?

“If you believe in the death penalty,” he said, “fix the system.”

Bill 7083, which awaits the governor’s signature, or — however unlikely — his veto, does attempt to fix one recurring problem in death-penalty cases: lousy legal defenses. The bill would suspend any defense attorney from handling death appeals for five years if, through the appeals process, they are twice found to have provided “constitutionally deficient representation.”

But it ignores the bigger problem — the other side. The bill provides no sanctions for the cops or prosecutors whose misconduct or willful negligence has sent innocents to Florida’s Death Row. In Finkelstein’s Broward County, cops who elicited false murder confessions from low-IQ and mentally ill defendants, later cleared by DNA or other new evidence, have never been punished. The Broward prosecutors who conveniently overlooked police misconduct and jammed through these lousy convictions, whose only excuse could be a kind of willful ignorance, all went on to splendid, respected careers. While the likes of Frank Lee Wright rotted away on Death Row for murders someone else committed. While actual killers, like Eddie Lee Mosley, continued on their murder sprees.

Last month, a Broward County jury decided two retired police officers should pay $7 million in civil damages for framing Anthony Caravella, a teenager with an IQ of 67, on rape and murder charges back in 1983. Testing of DNA evidence finally cleared Caravella after he had spent almost 27 years in prison.

Clearly, the jurors found the police conduct appalling and unlawful. Yet neither the police officers nor the prosecutors who abetted this sham case have ever faced an inquiry from a police agency or the state attorney’s office or the Florida Bar or the Florida Supreme Court.

It was the same pattern of police misconduct that sent Frank Lee Smith and Jerry Frank Townsend to prison. Finkelstein noted that four of the 13 post-conviction exonerations using irrefutable DNA evidence have come out of Broward. “But the cops who lied or cheated and destroyed innocent lives never had to explain their action to the state attorney,” Finkelstein said.

In a perverse way, the measure passed last week by the Florida Legislature would fix all these problems. We’ll just speed up the process. Get rid of the defendants, kill ’em quick, before all this stuff about police and prosecutorial misbehavior and negligence mucks up the process. If the defendants are actually innocent, we’ll never know.

They’ll be long dead.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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