Before state Rep. Matt Gaetz pushes ahead with efforts to speed death row prisoners to their execution date, he should demand a review of why Florida's capital punishment system is so prolific and mistake prone. The state holds the dubious distinction of being first in the nation in the number of new death sentences imposed and the number of death sentences overturned, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. The system's issues have not escaped the Florida Bar, the state's pre-eminent legal organization, which last week called for its comprehensive review. Any legislative "fixes" should wait for a full review.
As chairman of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Gaetz intends to offer a series of proposals during today's subcommittee meeting to change the way death sentence appeals are handled. The Fort Walton Beach Republican says he wants to address what he calls the "absurd" situation of people "who hang around on death row for 25 to 30 years." In fact, the average length of time an inmate sits on death row in this state is a little over 13 years. That might seem like a long time, but not to people like Juan Melendez, who was exonerated after nearly 18 years on Florida's death row. A tape was unearthed of the real perpetrator making a confession. Arbitrary speed in that case would have resulted in a terrible injustice.
To Gaetz's credit, he promises to have an open mind and won't rush into voting on any measures before there is a full debate. But some of his ideas on how to change Florida's death penalty system are wrongheaded from the start. For instance, he would strip the Florida Supreme Court of rule-making authority in post-conviction death penalty cases, handing that power to the Legislature. That is a terrible idea.
The proposal implies that Florida's highest court slows down the administration of justice to delay executions. In fact, the Supreme Court is charged with ensuring that the process is accurate and fair, however long it takes. Florida's death row has had 24 exonerations, acquittals or charges subsequently dropped — the most of any state. Why? According to Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, some people receive substandard legal services from private lawyers on a state registry. Florida also is the only state that allows juries to recommend a death sentence and find the aggravating circumstances to justify it by a simple majority vote. These close-call cases can clog the courts.
Only mischief will result from moving death penalty rule-making from the judicial branch — the branch that knows best how to administer justice — to the legislative branch. Gaetz offers a prime example. To reduce delays, he wants trial court judges to lose a year of state pension credits if they take longer than 90 days to rule after a post-conviction death penalty hearing. Gaetz apparently thinks it's okay if justice is shortchanged as long as the process speeds along.
To zero in on the problems with Florida's death penalty system, a comprehensive review by all three branches of government is needed, as the Florida Bar's Board of Governors said in its resolution Friday. The state hasn't undertaken an official review, besides a look into a botched execution under Bush, in over a decade. In 2006, a two-year study of Florida's system by the American Bar Association pointed up issues that the state has yet to address. Without understanding what those problems are, there is no basis for a discussion on reform.