Anti-death penalty groups outraged over law speeding up executions in Florida

06/24/13 Janelle Irwin
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Florida Governor Rick Scott is poised to execute more people in one term than any of his recent predecessors based on a new law that goes into effect July 1 that speeds up the death penalty process. The law also makes it legal for the state to destroy case records as soon as 60 days after an execution has taken place.

The "Timely Justice Act" requires the governor to sign a death warrant no later than 30 days after a death row inmate’s appeals have been exhausted. After that, the execution has to happen within 6-months. With Governor Rick Scott’s signature, the clock has already started ticking on 13 inmates who have exhausted their appeals. Once their time runs out, Scott will have executed 21 people in just one term. That’s as many as former Governor Jeb Bush who executed the same number of prisoners, but over the course of two terms. Richard Dieter is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“There’s been a review by the American Bar Association, there’s a review underway by the Florida Supreme Court. There are problems with Florida’s death penalty, systemic problems that need to be addressed. Speeding up the process is not necessarily the main way to solve these problems.”

The most troubling of those problems Dieter says, for every three people who have been executed in Florida, one death row inmate has been exonerated.

“Florida has had 24 people who were on death row, but then all convictions were wiped out and they were freed which is the most of any state in the country.”

But supporters say the bill is needed to ensure the process moves quicker. During floor debate, Senator Rob Bradley, a Republican from the Gainesville area, argued it wasn’t fair for victims’ families to have to wait for justice.

“There’s nothing in this bill that prohibits someone who has a legitimate claim of innocence from bringing that claim even up to the day of execution. So, this is not about a question of innocence, it’s about making sure that timely justice is realized.”

Legal experts are concerned about another provision buried in section 13 of the bill that allows the secretary of state to destroy case records. That could lead to cover-ups of wrongful executions. Howard Simon, the executive director of the ACLU of Florida, says it also removes accountability.

“I think it makes it terrible that the records will be destroyed, because given the fact that executions are speeded up, it makes it more likely that Florida will execute an innocent person.”

The group Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty led by Tampa resident Mark Elliott urged Governor Scott to veto the legislation. His office received more than 15,000 emails and phone calls asking for a veto. Elliott said one of the most logical messages sent to the governor was that the bill was unnecessary.

“Florida is actually, the time between sentencing and execution is almost two years less than the national average, so this was not an urgent problem to take care of.”

Pennsylvania has a similar law. The Death Penalty Information Center’s Dieter says no one in that state has been executed since the late 90s.

“What Pennsylvania does is require the Governor to sign the death warrant after the state appeals are over. But the Governor does and the Governor has signed over 100 execution warrants and none of them have been carried out because there are still some appeals. So, sometimes these laws attempt to put a speedier process in place, but there’s still federal courts, there’s still U.S. Supreme Court, there’s still even state courts that say there’s something else we want to review and we’re just not going to carry out this execution no matter what the law says.”

Supporters of the bill are looking at it as a way to save money. The bill also increases the amount of capital defense cases attorneys can field at one time from five to ten. That leaves opponents to the death penalty, including the ACLU’s Simon, concerned that inmates will not only have less time to prove their cases, they’ll also have less access to quality counsel.

“The Governor, in response to our criticism when he signed the bill, released a press release on the very day that he signed the bill and then left the country in which he said that the bill makes technical amendments to current law. And I just want to say, I think that is a distastefully deceitful defense. This is not a bill that just makes technical amendments. The authors of this bill in the legislature, the House member and the state Senator that were the sponsors of this bill had one goal in mind, to increase the number of executions and to speed up the number of executions.”

Six states have abolished the death penalty since 2007 including Maryland this past May. Other states narrowly defeated abolition measures this year including Colorado and Oregon. However Governors in those states have put a hold on executions and are likely to take up bills again next year.

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