TALLAHASSEE — The The Florida House today passed a bill that would speed up the state's capital punishment process.
The House passed the Timely Justice Act of 2013 (HB 7083) by a vote of 84-34. The bill goes to the Senate, where a similar measure had been on the agenda today. That chamber adjourned for the day without taking action.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach, creates tighter timeframes for appeals, post-conviction motions and imposes reporting requirements on case progress.
It also re-establishes a separate agency for north Florida to provide appellate-level legal representation to inmates sentenced to death, and requires them to “pursue all possible remedies in state court.”
Debate on the measure, however, alluded to the moral legitimacy of the death penalty itself. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the states to resume executions after an earlier ban.
Republicans repeated that “justice delayed is justice denied” for victims' survivors. Twenty-eight people now on death row in Florida have been there longer than 30 years.
“We have a responsibility to act,” Gaetz said. “Only God can judge, but we can sure set up the meeting.”
Democrats were concerned that a speedier process may result in innocent people being wrongly executed. Twenty-four men have been exonerated from Florida's death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
One Democrat favored the proposal.
“I am a believer that when you kill someone, we kill you back,” said Rep. Jared Evan Moskowitz of Coral Springs.
“The innocent life that I look at is the life of the victim,” he added. “That innocent life didn't get three meals a day. That innocent life didn't spend 10 or 12 or 15 or 25 additional years on this planet.”
Another wasn't so sure. Rep. Larry Lee, a Fort Pierce Democrat, told of how his sister was murdered in St. Petersburg decades ago. The man accused in the death has since died.
Lee said he was torn between his sister's death and seeing television shows on people cleared of murder by DNA evidence.
“I'm not asking you to vote up or down,” he said. “I'm just asking you to search your conscience.”
Lee ultimately voted no.
Florida has 405 inmates on the death row, more than any other state except California, which has 724. It takes an average of 13 years to get from sentencing to execution.
The Florida Legislature passed a previous overhaul, the Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000. It was shot down by the Florida Supreme Court, which called it an “unconstitutional encroachment” on the judiciary's rulemaking power.
The high court then issued its own rule changes, which weren't strict enough for lawmakers. The court this year has formed a committee of judges to again look into the capital punishment system and make its own recommendations.