TALLAHASSEE — Despite warnings that Florida will shrink the appeals of the innocent, the Florida House passed a bill Thursday designed to accelerate the execution of many of the 404 inmates on Florida's death row.
By an 84-34 vote, the House passed HB 7083, the "Timely Justice Act of 2013" and sent it to the Senate, where a companion measure is expected to be taken up today.
Sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, the bill creates a process to establish a system to determine which inmates on death row have exhausted their post-conviction appeals and requires the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days, after a Supreme Court review. The execution would then have to take place within 180 days.
The process would accelerate the execution for some, "but only those whose guilt or innocence is not in question,'' Gaetz said.
The measure prohibits lawyers for death row inmates from using certain defenses in capital cases, requires that the North Florida region be allowed to hire full-time lawyers to provide defense in capital cases and it puts penalties on lawyers accused of being ineffective counsel.
Florida's inmates on death row wait an average of 13 years before they are executed. Among the 404 people awaiting execution now, 155 have been there for more than 20 years and 10 have been there for more than 35 years.
Gaetz said the changes will end what he called "legal gamesmanship and legal quibbling'' by lawyers.
"The only thing we're getting rid of are those types of motions that don't speak to someone's guilt or innocence,'' he said.
During an impassioned debate in which several members quoted the Bible, proponents reflected on the unfairness of the delayed executions on victims' families.
Opponents said speeding executions would weaken an already unfair system and cited the statistics: In the past decade, Florida has freed 13 men who were falsely convicted. Collectively, they served more than 200 years in prison.
"It's not like those who commit these crimes are not being punished,'' said Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach. "They are locked in a cage for 32 years or more. That is a form of justice. Maybe not swift or fast enough for some."
Then he invoked words of the Bible: "Judge ye not least you be judged. Those of you who are without sin cast the first stone. Those of you who are without sin cast the first vote yes.''
Rep. Kionne McGhee, a freshman Democrat from Miami, said he met a man who had been exonerated who told him that during his years of incarceration he "didn't have a voice. He felt the process had rushed him through."
McGhee said that if the intent of the bill is to save money, "It will probably work."
But he urged his colleagues to consider what they are doing. "One life is one too many to rush this process through,'' he said. "Allow the court system to handle this process. Allow those folks on death row to have an opportunity."
Legislative analysts estimate the state spends between $326,093 and $296,032 per inmate before an execution.
Since 1976, when the state reinstated the death penalty, Florida has executed 74 inmates. Proponents say that only California, which has 724 inmates on its death row, has a longer wait for execution.
The Florida Supreme Court has appointed a committee to revise the existing rules to ensure that capital cases can move more quickly through the court system and plans to release its study in September.
Gaetz said the state can't control the federal court proceedings, but the reforms, along with any reforms to be adopted by the Florida Supreme Court, could reduce the average to less than 10 years.
He then added: "Rep. Taylor is so right. Only God can judge — but we can sure set up the meeting."