The Timely Justice Act comes at a time when five other states are either repealing or putting a moratorium on executions, and the Florida Supreme Court is conducting a comprehensive review aimed at making more efficient the state’s post-conviction process.
Florida leads the nation in exonerating Death Row inmates, having released 24 prisoners from Death Row in the last decade. Death penalty opponents flooded the governor’s office with letters and petitions urging him to veto the bill and ask the Legislature to reform what they consider a deeply flawed death penalty process in Florida. Among their complaints: Florida is only one of two states that do not require a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death.
But the bill’s supporters say that the ability to exonerate the innocent will not be hampered by the faster appeals process and argue that it will restore the deterrent value of the state’s death penalty.
“We’re not short on anti-death penalty zealots in Florida, but most people in Florida think it’s unreasonable to put people on Death Row 20 to 25 years when their sentence was not in question,’’ said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the House sponsor of the bill.
Supporters said 154 inmates have been on Florida’s Death Row 20 years and 10 have been there for more than 35 years. The average time for appeals runs 13 years, which is below the national average of 14.8 years.
Death penalty opponents flooded the governor’s office with letters and petitions, urging him to veto the bill and ask the Legislature to instead change what they consider a deeply flawed death penalty process in Florida.
"If this bill had been law, it would have ended my life — even though I was innocent," said Sean Penalver of Broward County, who was exonerated after six years on Death Row, as he delivered 6,000 petitions to the governor’s office in May. "But if he signs this bill into law, I fear other innocent people like me will be unjustly executed by the State of Florida."
The law imposes strict time limits for when records must be submitted from courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys in an attempt to streamline the appeals process. It also requires reports to the Legislature on how many cases have been pending, reestablishes a Death Row appeals office for North Florida and bans attorneys from handling capital appeals if they have been twice cited for constitutionally incompetent handling of cases.
After an inmate is executed, the law also allows the state to destroy all records relating to the convicted killer’s case, unless a lawyer objects – a change in policy that Simon of the ACLU finds shocking.
“We may execute an innocent person and then destroy the files so the people of Florida will never know that we committed that travesty,’’ he said. “It’s essentially cover it up.”