In Florida and other death penalty states, it can take years and even decades for evidence of a prisoner's innocence to come out. Yet the Timely Justice Act passed by the Florida Legislature would speed the execution process with arbitrary and rigid time limits and reduce the governor's discretion in choosing which death warrants to sign, making it more likely that the state will execute an innocent person. Gov. Rick Scott should veto the bill so that Florida is not even more likely to make a fatal error.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach and the sponsor of HB 7083, claims Florida's death penalty process is too slow and blames "legal gamesmanship and legal quibbling." Yet the state's system is nearly two years faster than the national average. Florida inmates are on death row an average of 13 years before they are executed; the national average is 14.83 years.
In fact, Florida fares far worse in its excessive and faulty use of the ultimate punishment. This state sentences more people to death than any other state and has the highest number of exonerations. That's because Florida doesn't require juries to unanimously recommend a death sentence or the aggravating factors that justify it, as other states do. While judges impose the final sentence, they almost always follow the jury's recommendation. An effort to require juror unanimity for death sentences failed again this session, and even an attempt to amend the legislation to require a supermajority jury vote of at least 10-2 failed.
The bill would strip the governor of the power to decide when to execute a prisoner, which raises separation of power issues. The governor would have 30 days to issue a warrant from the time that all legal appeals and the executive clemency process have concluded. An execution must then take place within 180 days of the warrant's issue. If this became law, 13 of Florida's 405 death row inmates would face execution within the next six months and dozens more would be on deck, putting an impossible strain on the courts and the state's death penalty lawyers.
By passing legislation to speed up executions, legislators are saying they don't care about what happened to Seth Penalver and prisoners like him. He was recently exonerated after spending 18 years in prison and on Florida's death row. Evidence of his innocence was withheld for nearly 18 years, according to Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He is the 24th exonerated inmate from Florida's death row. And, the group says, he is the eighth prisoner exonerated after spending more than 10 years on death row because of how long it took evidence of innocence to emerge.
It makes no sense to make legal changes now. A committee established by the Florida Supreme Court is looking into making capital postconviction proceedings more efficient, with a report due by the end of September. Lawmakers should wait for those recommendations.
One positive aspect of the bill — reopening the third capital collateral regional office to provide capital defendants with better lawyers — doesn't balance out the broader problems with the legislation. As a state panel studying wrongful convictions reported last year, mistakes often happen in Florida's criminal justice system because the system is underfunded. Overburdened court-appointed counsel too often can't put on an adequate defense. Accelerating executions without addressing this flaw and others identified by the panel is not just shortsighted and unworkable. It's immoral.