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.”