Florida's newly signed death penalty law has been denunciated far and wide as a dangerous act that puts innocent people at risk of execution.
In reality, the law isn't worthy of the scorn. Rather than fundamentally change the state's faulty death penalty process, the law creates notification and oversight procedures meant to track the cases more closely and minimize delays.
Its legislative sponsors wanted to bring relief to victims' families, some of whom endure interminable delays. As the Legislature debated the bill this spring, 155 death row inmates in Florida had been in custody for more than 20 years, 10 of them for more than 35 years.
We don't know the circumstances behind those exorbitant delays. But it should be clear to all concerned that it shouldn't take that long.
The law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this month, requires the state's Supreme Court to provide an annual report to the Legislature on cases pending more than three years. It re-establishes an office in North Florida to represent death row inmates, and it requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of being notified that appeals have been exhausted, provided the clemency process is completed.
Be mindful that the years-long appellate process available to defendants remains largely unchanged. That includes a review by the Florida Supreme Court, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, a round of post-conviction proceedings, another appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, a federal court review, and the clemency process.
We're not convinced the new law will speed the process along in any noticeable way, as critics contend.
What should be of greater concern to lawmakers is that Florida gets it wrong more than any other state. Since 1973, 24 death row inmates in Florida have been exonerated. That makes it reasonable for death penalty foes to pounce when it appears limits are being placed on an innocent inmate's chance at exoneration. With more than 100 of the state's 400 death row cases now beyond the post-conviction appeals process, they fear the state will become an execution assembly line.
The number of executions can be expected to spike soon, but not because of this law. Rather, they will occur because appeals already have been exhausted.
Flippant remarks by the bill's legislative sponsor, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Fort Walton Beach, that the law's critics are "zealots" and that "only God can judge, but we sure can set up the meeting," only serve to advance Florida's image as a vengeful state that lacks respect for the solemn business of capital punishment.
Florida's death row inmates average a little more than 13 years awaiting execution, slightly less than the national average. That brings into question the need for legislative measures like this new law, called the Timely Justice Act.
Florida's death penalty process doesn't need to be "speeded up" by legislative fiat. It needs to be fixed with judicial measures that provide the necessary protections for the accused while moving the cases without undue delays.
A review of Florida's process by the American Bar Association in 2006 called on the state to create independent commissions to establish the causes of wrongful convictions. It recommended the state properly compensate the attorneys for the accused, and bring Florida in line with other states by requiring that jury recommendations for death be unanimous, though judges make the final determination. It found glaring racial, socio-economic and geographic disparities in death sentences.
A state review currently under way is looking for ways to make the post-conviction process more efficient.
Mark Schlakman, a director for the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University who helped produce the Bar review, thinks the focus on speed is misplaced.
"While concerns about undue delay in the appeals process shouldn't be ignored," he wrote in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper, "they'd be more appropriately addressed within the context of a comprehensive review of Florida's entire death penalty process by all branches of state government."
Unfortunately, the Timely Justice Act does little to fix the state's broken death penalty process.