TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott has accelerated the pace of signing death warrants in Florida by lining up three executions over the next few weeks, the most in such a brief period of time in more than two decades.
Scott and his chief legal adviser say they are doing nothing unusual. But legal experts who oppose the death penalty wonder whether other factors are at work — such as Scott's desire to improve his standing with voters as he seeks re-election next year.
Not since 1989, when an unpopular Gov. Bob Martinez set a record by signing six death warrants in a single day, has a Florida governor been so eager to use the death penalty.
"In the past, governors wouldn't do multiple warrants at a time. It was a much more orderly process than this," said Martin McClain, a lawyer who has defended many Florida death row inmates. "It appears that every 10 days, Gov. Scott is signing a death warrant."
Scott recently signed three death warrants in succession, for condemned murderers Elmer Leon Carroll, William Van Poyck and Marshall Lee Gore. All three have been on death row for longer than 20 years. Their executions, set over the next six weeks, will keep the death chamber at Florida State Prison in Starke unusually busy. Two other recent death warrants have been blocked in federal court.
Scott had signed a total of six death warrants before the recent burst.
"I go through them when people have exhausted their appeals and they're finished with the clemency process," Scott said. "Then I continue to move the process along."
The timing of death warrant signings, and which inmates are chosen, has long been shrouded in mystery in Florida, and has been a subject of consternation among lawyers who represent death row inmates. Inmates are allowed to appeal their convictions in both the state and federal courts, and every case undergoes an investigation by the Florida Parole Commission before the governor can sign a death warrant.
But in case after case, the Florida Supreme Court has rejected claims that the death penalty selection process is arbitrary or without standards, and the court has upheld the governor's "unfettered discretion to select inmates for execution," as it noted last week in the case of Elmer Carroll, condemned to die for the rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl in Apopka in 1990.
Scott's current legal counsel — his third since taking office — is Peter Antonacci, who has a much more extensive background in the criminal justice system than his predecessors.
Antonacci, 64, is a former deputy state attorney general, local prosecutor and statewide prosecutor, and he was Scott's choice to serve as the interim state attorney for Palm Beach County for most of last year. A longtime Democrat who became a Republican several years ago, Antonacci said he reached the conclusion that his views on crime and punishment were more in line with Republicans than with Democrats.
Antonacci said his own philosophy plays no role in Scott's decision to accelerate the pace of death warrants.
"I don't have a philosophy," Antonacci said. "The governor of this state gets elected, and you expect him to faithfully carry out the laws, and this is one of the ones that's in my bailiwick. ... When I got here, I said, let's find out which ones are pending that have completed their two trips through the courts."
What the latest death warrant cases have in common, Antonacci said, is that all three inmates have been on death row for more than 20 years.
"These cases tend to be among the oldest," he said. "That's the way the process has worked."
Scott's spurt of death warrant signings also parallels the Legislature's recent passage of a bill aimed at speeding up the death penalty appeals process. Dubbed the Timely Justice Act by legislators, the bill (HB 7083) passed both chambers by wide margins. It has not yet been sent to Scott for action.
"We'll review it and see what it does," Scott said of the bill.
One provision of the bill would require the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a death row inmate's clemency review, a standard step in all death penalty cases.
Some legal experts have raised concerns that the bill could increase the possibility that an innocent person could be put to death.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero recently co-wrote an opinion column in which he said the Timely Justice Act should be viewed in a broader framework of Florida's death penalty system, "to minimize the risk that Florida might execute innocent people or others who shouldn't be subject to the death penalty."
Cantero's article was co-written by Mark Schlakman, senior program director for the Center for Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University. He noted that the Supreme Court recently produced a list of 110 death row inmates whose appeals have been exhausted, which he said contradicts the perception that courts take too long to review death cases.
Florida is one of only two states to allow split juries to recommend a death sentence to a judge. The state also leads the nation with 24 cases of death row exonerations, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Florida is one of 33 states that has the death penalty, and it has 405 inmates on death row, more than any other state except California. The state has executed 75 people since 1976, when capital punishment was re-instituted after a long absence.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.