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A Times Editorial

Florida death penalty procedures need review

Florida's death penalty is costly to administer, fraught with legal pitfalls and, according to at least one federal district judge, unconstitutional. But the legislative agency charged with evaluating the way the state administers the death penalty ceased to exist last week — even as Gov. Rick Scott signed his first death warrant. Now Florida has no mechanism for scrutinizing the fairness, accuracy or efficacy of the state's death penalty.

As a fiscal conservative looking to make government work better, Scott should not be satisfied with the problem-ridden status quo. He should use his executive authority to create a task force to do a comprehensive review of the state's death penalty.

The Florida Commission on Capital Cases was eliminated and its enabling legislation repealed during the last legislative session for paltry savings of $400,000 — an example of how little interest state leaders have in examining and fixing the way the death penalty operates.

But lawmakers soon may be forced to care. A recent ruling by a federal court in Miami found that Florida's system of imposing the death penalty is unconstitutional because the jury does not designate which aggravating factors are the basis for recommending a death sentence. The case will likely be appealed, but the ruling hews closely to U.S. Supreme Court precedent on sentencing.

Florida's troubled death penalty process has been well documented. In 2005 the Florida Supreme Court urged the Legislature to address the deficiencies. And a year later the American Bar Association issued a report by Florida-based experts that raised serious concerns.

Among other problems, Florida is the only one of 34 death penalty states where the jury identifies aggravating factors and recommends a death sentence by a simple majority vote. Other states require at least one or both of those actions to be unanimous. Florida also allows judges to disregard a jury's recommendation, a scenario that is also constitutionally suspect if a judge imposes a death sentence after a jury recommends life in prison.

Florida has the dubious honor of exonerating 23 inmates sentenced to death, more than any other state, which is indicative of a dangerously faulty process. Meanwhile, the latest numbers show that enforcing the death penalty costs the state an estimated $51 million more annually than if all first-degree murderers were sentenced to life without parole, according to a 2000 study in the Palm Beach Post. New estimates are needed to let Floridians see just how much it costs to maintain this seriously flawed system.

Scott has authorized the Aug. 2 execution of Manuel Valle for the killing of a Coral Gables police office 33 years ago. But he should also commit himself to taking a fresh, comprehensive look at the way the death penalty is administered.

Florida death penalty procedures need review 07/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 6:40pm]
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