Florida’s Misstep on Capital Punishment

While a number of states are reconsidering or repealing the death penalty, the Florida Senate yesterday passed legislation to accelerate the state’s capital punishment process. Called the “Timely Justice Act,” the Senate passed the bill with a vote of 28-10.The Florida House passed the bill with an 84-34 vote last Thursday. Governor Rick Scott is expected to sign the changes into law.

Reuters reports:

The “Timely Justice Act” sets deadlines for condemned killers to file appeals, and for the state to proceed with issuing warrants after the Florida Supreme Court upholds death sentences.

It also sets competency standards for lawyers handling cases. To reduce the number of appeals alleging incompetent counsel, any attorney twice found to have provided “constitutionally deficient representation” will be suspended from handling death appeals for five years.

Reuters notes that Florida has more inmates on death row than any other state besides California, and has executed more inmates than any other state except for Texas. In Florida, it takes an average of thirteen years for a death row inmate to be executed after being sentenced to death. Moreover, Florida is the only state allowing juries to recommend death sentences by a simple majority of 7 to 5.

Supporters of Florida’s Timely Justice Act say numerous people have sat on Florida’s death row for longer than 30 years, and that such a long waiting period “makes a mockery of our justice system,” as Republican Sen. Rob Bradley has stated. However, of the current 406 inmates on Florida’s death row, less than thirty were sentenced before 1983.

Many opposed to the bill have raised concerns that speeding up the legal appeals process for death row inmates could lead to the execution of innocent prisoners. Indeed, Florida has a history of sentencing innocent men to death. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Florida has exonerated twenty-four inmates from death row since 1973—more than any other state in the country. What’s more, some of the inmates who have been exonerated were in prison for several decades prior to the emergence of additional evidence that proved their innocence. As Reason’s Adrian Moore put it in his California Voters’ Guide, “We know the system is imperfect and sometimes condemns innocent people. Death is permanent; life in prison offers a chance.”

Recently, there has been a national trend away from capital punishment, with five states voting to repeal the death penalty in the past six years. According to Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., “The number of sentences imposed in the country has declined by 75 percent since 1990 and only nine states carried out an execution last year.”

That trend is a welcome one. Unfortunately it is clear that lawmakers in Florida have chosen to go their own way—for now. According to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar), lead sponsor of the House bill, “Only God can judge. But we can sure set up the meeting.”