Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature are speeding up executions in an era when other states are slowing them down or repealing the death penalty. The legislation that Scott signed into law Friday puts him on track to be the most active executioner in modern Florida history, in a state that has had more exonerations off death row than any other in the country. The only backstop now is if Scott uses his executive clemency powers to try to avoid future injustices.
The new law addresses a nonexistent problem. The death penalty has had support from governors across party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans have ordered executions, but they were able to do so on a timetable that reflected the unique circumstances of each case. The new law strips away a governor's discretion, requiring him to sign a death warrant within 30 days after the inmate has exhausted his appeals and the executive clemency process is complete. The only bright spot is that some flexibility is retained by the governor since only he can order a clemency review. Scott's general counsel, Pete Antonacci, urged the addition of the clemency provision, a step that adds a safeguard from reckless speed.
No one has a clear picture of whether there are innocent people among the 405 people on Florida's death row, but the state has exonerated 24 prisoners off death row in the last decade — more than any other state. Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on Florida's death row in 2000 after spending 14 years there. A posthumous DNA test found that he had been innocent of the crime and identified the real murderer.
Smith's story and those of other exonerated Florida inmates — some who waited decades before their innocence was proved — are not a concern of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the measure's sponsor in the House. He called critics of his fast-track executions "anti-death penalty zealots," essentially denying that the criminal justice system is fallible.
Five states have repealed or put a moratorium on executions. Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers again rejected an attempt to bring Florida in line with all but one other state by requiring some form of unanimity by jurors before a death sentence can be recommended.
The new law sets the state up for a significant number of executions in the near term. There are at least 13 inmates on death row who have exhausted their appeals and are under clemency review. That means Scott is on track to put 21 people to death during a four-year term as governor. Jeb Bush, the only other modern governor to execute that many people, had 21 death row inmates executed over an eight-year period.
The Florida Supreme Court ordered a comprehensive review of the state's post-conviction death penalty process that is under way. It would have been far more responsible to wait for those conclusions than to recklessly speed up the process with so little concern about executing the wrong person.